Dance

Review: Joffrey Ballet’s The Nutcracker Continues Its Chicago 1893 Focus

The bottom line is this: if you find yourself in any seat at the Joffrey’s production of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, it is a good seat. Being in the room for this annual holiday tradition means you’ll be witness to one of the richest productions in the city, no matter the time of year. From the gorgeous sets to the lush costumes to the robust orchestrations, it’s a show that only gets better with age. The only question will be, depending on your seat, if you’re able to take in from above the full depth of the stunning choreography or appreciate from up close the athleticism of the dancers as their muscles tremble to make every arabesque and pirouette look effortless.

Image courtesy of Joffrey Ballet

The Joffrey’s modernization (premiered last year, choreographed and directed by Christopher Wheeldon) reimagines The Nutcracker set in a modest Chicago home rather than in a wealthy family’s mansion. From the first notes of the familiar classical score, allow yourself to be transported to Christmas 1892, just five months before the Columbian Exposition of 1893 would open in our own fair city. The meek Marie (Cara Marie Gary) and her brother Franz (Bennett Parker) anticipate it along with other residents watching the construction take shape, the city hosting an influx of workers to make it all possible. Back at home, their artist mother (Christine Rocas) is sculpting a golden goddess statue for the fairgrounds, and soon the workers and their families arrive for a Christmas Eve celebration. The folk dancing and reverie are enough to make you long for your own family’s holiday traditions, the place filled with cheer and love if not the luxuries of a more refined affair.

The Great Impresario (Temur Suluashvili) arrives heralding the wonders of the fair, with gifts for all the children. Marie’s is the Nutcracker, and after everyone departs, she falls asleep with her new toy in her arms. And the magic hasn’t even begun yet, for it’s overnight that she awakes with a start as Franz is kidnapped by the Rat King and the Impresario arrives to help her follow him into a magical Christmas dream world. The Nutcracker King defeats the Rat King and reveals himself to be a handsome young man; together, he and Marie set off to discover the rest of the magic in this whimsical new reality, starting with a delicate number performed as though inside a snowglobe, the flakes falling all the while.

After intermission, we finally get to the fair itself, as Marie and the Nutcracker King meet the Impresario again, this time in the company of the Queen of the Fair (also Rocas). She welcomes the duo to the fair with a gorgeous solo that’s just a taste of what’s to come as they tour the various country’s pavilions: Spain, Arabia, China, Venice, even the Wild West. This is not your grandmother’s Nutcracker, after all. It’s actually fairly nostalgic for a Chicago of days gone by and every bit as charming as if there were Sugar Plum Fairies and a mountain of sweets. Of particular note year after year (including this one) is the Arabian number (performed by April Daly and Miguel Angel Blanco), a sequence of sinewy leaps and lifts that look as though they’re dancing on a tightrope.

By the time Marie and her Nutcracker King finish their tour around the world, the fair is in full swing and the stage fills with visitors who are there to take in the sights along with them. Their candy-colored costumes fill the stage with a rainbow of joy, as in the final movements of Tchaikovsky’s legendary composition love fills the air and everyone celebrates the wonders of Marie’s dream. And though she does wake up to Christmas morning, the vibrant visions of just a moment ago linger in her memory, and ours. The Nutcracker is world-class theater, from the ballet to the orchestration to the sets and costumes, and it’s in our own backyard. With performances through December 30, finding a seat at this essential Chicago-centric production—any seat at all will do—is imperative.

The Joffrey Ballet presents The Nutcracker at the Auditorium Theater through December 30; find a full schedule and ticket here.

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