Outside of its regular season, the Joffrey Ballet annually celebrates the winter holidays with a month-long run of The Nutcracker. It’s a Christmas tradition so long and familiar that the new version produced in 2016 was a welcomed change of tack for dancers and audiences.
The new adaptation came on the heels of the Joffrey’s 20-year anniversary as Chicago’s resident ballet company. To do this landmark year justice, Christopher Wheeldon was contracted to choreograph the new Nutcracker, and both he and the company’s Artistic Director Ashley Wheater were in agreement that this version had to be set in Chicago.
With the help of award-winning children’s book author and illustrator Brian Selznick, the classically German story is reset in the burgeoning city of Chicago during the winter of 1892 as construction of the fairgrounds for the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893’s is underway. Marie and Franz are not wealthy children surrounded by Christmas splendors, but rather working-class children growing up in a wooden shack nestled in the shadows of the gargantuan construction project. Their mother is a widowed sculptress working on the fair’s iconic, golden Statue of the Republic.
On Christmas Eve, Marie’s family celebrates with the families of other fair workers, who cut a festive rug with their traditional music and dances, until The Great Impresario makes an appearance. The Impresario replaces the traditional Drosselmeyer character and is modelled after the chief architect of the Columbian Exposition, Daniel Burnham. Just as in the original story, the Impresario brings magic and enlightenment as the character that gifts Marie with the nutcracker and guides her through, not the land of sweets, but rather the fairgrounds and its pavilions.
The Chicago Nutcracker is a glorious visual spectacle with puppetry and effects by Broadway designer Basil Twist and a myriad of diverse and wondrous sets and whimsical costumes designed by Julian Crouch. The production value alone is worth the price of admission.
However, the ballet’s crowning achievement is that this is a truly ensemble piece that allows the company it was created to impress. Wheeldon’s choreography seamlessly weaves between gorgeously classical group choreographies – such as the stunning dance of the snowflakes performed in a flurry of artificial snow – to solos, duets and trios that stretch into the neoclassical.
This is an uncorseted Nutcracker, making excellent use of humor and sensuality. While the entire ballet dazzles, it is the trip through the pavilions that shines brightest. Breaking with tradition, the Spanish dance is replaced with what seemed more like a British theme, the sugarplum fairies are a masked Venetian trio, and we’re treated to a visit to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show – which actually featured in the 1893 fair – complete with high heel booted saloon dancers and a pistol toting, quick drawing Bill.
By far the most sublime piece and performance of the December 14 performance was the Arabian dance, performed by real-life husband and wife Victoria Jaiani and Temus Suluashvili. The choreography is dominated by seamless lifts and midair back bends that leave Jaiani draped or coiled around Suluashvili. The piece is smooth, lingering, liquid passion, and it is was performed that evening with such coordinated perfection that audible gasps of astonishment escaped the audience each time Jaiani performed some almost implausible move.
The Joffrey’s Nutcracker brings freshness and a whole new wonder to a tradition that was in need of revamping. The adaptation gives the ballet a modern sensibility, while respecting the source material. It’s not an easy balance to strike, yet the production manages to surpass every expectation, while also giving the City of Chicago and its residents a ballet entirely of their own.
Reviewed on 14th of December at the Auditorium Theatre.