Joffrey Ballet’s 'Nutcracker' a magical gift that keeps on giving

Magic abounds in Christopher Wheeldon’s “The Nutcracker,” the Joffrey Ballet’s magnificent holiday gift that keeps on giving, playing at the Auditorium Theatre through December 29th.
When it premiered in 2016, some greeted Wheeldon’s re-imagining of “The Nutcracker,” with skepticism. How could anything replace Robert Joffrey’s beloved “Nutcracker,” his final gift to the world, and a Joffrey Ballet holiday tradition in Chicago for the previous twenty years?
Now enjoying its 4th triumphant season, Wheeldon’s “The Nutcracker” has won its place in the hearts of Chicago audiences with a brilliant production that tells the Nutcracker story from the perspective of the workers constructing the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, the first World’s Fair held in Chicago.
Commissioned by the Joffrey Ballet in 2016, Wheeldon’s version, with story adaptation by celebrated author Brian Selznick, trades the opulence of Robert Joffrey’s 19th-Century American drawing room for a widowed worker’s shack on the fairground’s Jackson Park site. Instead of high society guests and their privileged progeny in lavish costumes bearing extravagant gifts, humble immigrant workers and their families come together to celebrate Christmas Eve, 1892, with American country dancing to an on-stage fiddle band, their familiar Tchaikovsky tunes resonating with a distinctly American folk accent. Wheeldon’s extended folk dance sequence, the centerpiece of the Act 1 party scene, is a wonder of choreographic ingenuity, setting the tone of community solidarity.
Selznick’s adaptation of the original E.T.A. Hoffmann story gives dramatic though-line and meaning to a ballet that has traditionally served as a showcase for visual confection and virtuoso dancing. Here, we have real characters, relationships and dreams, some of which come true.
The strength of this production is in the unity of its many components, all of which are realized at the very pinnacle of artistic achievement.
First and foremost are the Joffrey dancers, whose commitment to authenticity reminds us of how important dramatic portrayal of the characters is to storytelling in a ballet like “The Nutcracker,” detailing their hopes and dreams, their relationships, and their needs and circumstances.
This is especially apparent in opening day performances Saturday of Victoria Jaiani in the roles of widowed sculptress/mother and dream sequence Queen of the Fair, and Amanda Assucena as Marie, her daughter. They are characters first, whose hearts beat within Wheeldon’s evocative choreography, every gesture, every technically demanding sequence in service of the greater dramatic objectives of love, wonder, hope and desire, which drive the ballet through the reality of hardship in Act 1, and the dream world of what could be in Act 2.
Fabrice Calmels delights with on-stage humor in the Act 1 character roles of The Rat Catcher and The Rat King, and in Act 2 as Arabian, spanning an impressive range of interpretive and technical performance, along with his slinky partner, the always alluring Christine Rocas.
Alonso Tepetzi as The Nutcracker and Hansol Jeong in the solo role of Chinese Dancer, give special meaning to the ballet term “balón,” which means the ability to appear suspended in midair.
Dylan Gutierrez as a bigger-than-life Buffalo Bill transforms the bravura of Tchaikovsky’s Russian variation into a plausible Wild West show filled swagger, rope tricks, and two-shooters, all in time to the music.
Both adult and juvenile ensembles deserve special recognition for personalizing each individual in the Act 1 scenes, with special kudos to spunky Oliver Reeve Libke as Marie’s little brother, Franz, and Fernando Duarte and Xavier Nuñez as Teenage Boys.
In the Snowflake scene in Act 1, the ensemble is a marvel of ice crystals, and their Act 2 ensemble work as Fair Visitors in Waltz of the Flowers brings the excitement of the fair to life in front of the giant moving Ferris wheel projected behind their ballroom moves of the day.
Julian Crouch’s spectacular costume and set design, along with 59 Productions Video and Production Design and Natasha Katz’s lighting design are as important as the dancing, providing a visual canvas of breathtaking beauty and seamless magical transformation in perfect correspondence to the music and movement.
Scott Speck’s direction of the Chicago Philharmonic, performing live, brings new life to the Tchaikovsky score, with crisp interpretation and especially lively brass and winds.
And let us not forget the infestation of puppeteer Basil Twist’s mischievous Rats, who traverse the construction site looking for midnight snacks in the widow’s shack.
Certainly not a replacement for Robert Joffrey’s production, Wheeldon’s “The Nutcracker” is a thoroughly engaging work on its own terms, apt for our times and dramatically complete in a way that is unique to any other production of the ballet I have seen.
As a dance writer, I have been fortunate to see and review this marvelous production for the second time since its premiere, and I love it even more the second time around. This may be due partially to having a three-year-old as my dance date this year, and watching her become as enthralled as I was. She however, was uninhibited enough to dance along with the dancers and conduct along with the orchestra from her seat. When the final curtain came down and it was time to go home, she said, “I want to stay here!” Weeping as we left, she was unwilling to part with the magic of the world on stage, and frankly, so was I!
The Joffrey Ballet's "The Nutcracker" continues through Dec. 29 at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Ida B. Wells Drive. For tickets and more information, click the event page below.