There is no ballet so ingrained in the public consciousness as Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker. Even those who profess no interest in the art form have likely seen a performance, and its themes have become so deeply associated with the Christmas season, they can readily be heard piped into department stores throughout December and even (distressingly) in the background of car commercials advertising year-end clearance sales. There is an inherent risk in making the decision to reinterpret a work so well and thoroughly known, and for the Joffrey Ballet it has more than paid off.
The vision of a new Nutcracker was brought to life by a team consisting of the Joffrey’s artistic director Ashley Wheater, author Brian Selznick, and master choreographer Christopher Wheeldon. The ballet, as they have conceived of it, eschews the sugarcoated aspects of original narrative–in which a young and wealthy girl receives a nutcracker from her mysterious uncle, which comes to life in her dreams, and takes her through a fairyland populated by sweets and dancers from around the world—in favor of a more grounded premise.
This iteration, now in its second season, places the ballet five months before the opening of Chicago’s World Columbian Exposition in December of 1892, and makes the young Marie a member of a working class Eastern European family living on the fairgrounds, her mother being one of the fair’s sculptresses at work on the famed Statue of the Republic. Rather than visiting a fairyland in her dreams, Marie is taken along the fair’s Midway by its head—known in the production as The Great Impresario, and based on the fair’s real-life architect, Daniel Burnham—to visit its cultural pavilions, the inhabitants of which each perform for her.
The decision to recontextualize the narrative this way provides a degree of justification for the ballet’s second act that the traditional staging never has. This allows many of the most beloved dances of the production to remain without alteration beyond a refreshingly modern take on the choreography. There are, of course, instances of departure, and the alterations are smart (a trading out of the Russian Dancers in the second act for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, danced impeccably and not without a certain humor by Dylan Gutierrez), seamless (the exchange of sugarplum fairies for a trio of masked Venetian dancers), and often clever (instead of candy-clad children, walnuts; an uncanny chorus, all legs and shells). In counterbalance, a sufficient number of elements are held over from the traditional staging (the great expansion of a Christmas tree at the onset of Marie’s dream, the first act ending with the dance of the snowflakes, an infestation of rats being vanquished by the nutcracker prince) that one never forgets what ballet they are watching.
No detail is overlooked or effort spared in providing historical accuracy where the World’s Fair is concerned. Through an incisive use of projection, beautifully constructed set pieces, and elegant costuming, the fair is brought unfailingly to life. That the performance takes place in the Auditorium Theatre adds the finishing touch; designed by Louis Sullivan, one of the fair’s architects, in 1889, it provides a rare degree of atmospheric sincerity to the performance.
The Joffrey is a world-class company, and within its talented ranks reside dancers of unrivaled skill. In the opening night performance, several stand out: Victoria Jaiani, as the Sculptress/Queen of the fair, captivated the room in the second act pas de deux danced with Miguel Angel Blanco as The Great Impresario, and Christine Rocas’ and Fabrice Calmels’ serpentine turn as the Arabian Dancers brought the house to its feet.
The Joffrey’s new Nutcracker treads a very fine and very difficult line: it awakens the nostalgia that accompanies a well-known score without sacrificing choreographic modernity and it is unfailingly faithful to the original structure while recontextualizing the narrative entirely. Somehow, simultaneously, it never allows its audience to forget what ballet they are watching, but delivers such a thoroughly revitalized iteration, it comes across as strikingly original, and in the process achieves something very close to artistic perfection.
The Nutcracker by Joffrey Ballet continues through December 30 at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress Parkway. Tickets are $35 to $165. Buy them at the box office in the lobby of Joffrey tower, 10 E. Randolph St., by telephone at 312.386.8905, or online.