Review: A&A Ballet’s Striking The Art Deco Nutcracker Reimagines the Story in 1920s America

Photo by Dan Swinson. A & A Ballet’s production of The Art Deco Nutcracker lavishly illustrates that a dance company need not have a big name to have oversized talent, vision and creativity. The performance last weekend at Athenaeum Theatre featured impressive choreography, stunning costumes and clever reimagining of the holiday season chestnut. It was visually arresting and thoroughly entertaining.  The company, based in the South Loop, is made up of young professionals and ballet students. It was founded in 2016 by Alexei Kremnev and Anna Reznik, who brought major league talent to the task: They were the founding artistic directors of the Joffrey Academy and Joffrey Studio, and their professional panache was evident from the opening curtain.  Drosselmeyer, Clara and the nutcracker. Photo by Dan Swinson. The Art Deco Nutcracker was choreographed by Kremnev (who also performed the key role of Drosselmeyer) to a recording of the lush, enduring score by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. It updates the scene from mid-19th century Germany to 1920s America. Couples and families, bearing gifts, arrive at a home for a Christmas celebration, women in sleek gowns in a rainbow of colors, men (and boys) clad in tuxedos.  The production follows the familiar Nutcracker story arc. Drosselmeyer captivates the party with his life-sized mechanical dolls (played by live dancers), and gives a nutcracker painted as a soldier as a gift to Clara, the daughter of the party’s hosts. Bratty brother Fritz breaks the nutcracker, which Drosselmeyer magically fixes.   When guests depart, Clara falls asleep on a couch holding the nutcracker, and Drosselmeyer conjures a fantastical dreamscape in which soldiers led by the nutcracker defeat the rodent army of the Mouse King. The nutcracker becomes a handsome prince, and after the Dance of the Snowflakes, he and Clara arrive at the Land of Sweets, where they are entertained by dancers representing treats from around the world. At the end, Drosselmeyer breaks the spell and Clara awakens and embraces her toy nutcracker.  Photo by Dan Swinson. Within that framework, there have been untold numbers of reinterpretations of this piece, including the Joffrey Ballet’s production—created by Christopher Wheeldon and currently on stage at Chicago’s Lyric Opera House—that relocates the scene to the city’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. Kremnev does the same for the 1920s, and then some, and the results are delightful. (See our review of the Joffrey's Nutcracker.)  Kremnev introduces a new mechanical doll to the party scene: a devil, dressed in a bright red outfit. The work of production designer Gabriel Brandon-Hanson and wardrobe director Laura Skarich is a major part of this production’s success. The mice, often portrayed as mangy and more rat-like, are furry and realistic (and a troupe of small children playing baby mice received a collective “aw” from an audience heavily populated by relatives and friends of the performers). The Mouse King is defeated when Clara knocks him cold with a gift-wrapped box, much less violent than the nutcracker’s slaying of the beast with his sword in the traditional versions.  During the second act in the Land of the Sweets, the Chinese segment representing tea includes a dancing dragon. The Arabian section representing coffee has stunning solos by a woman dancer in a sequined body suit and a turbaned male dancer with a prop snake entwined in his arms. The Russian section features dancers who wear red and white folk outfits topped by fur hats, instead of the candy cane-striped leotards commonly worn.   Photo by Dan Swinson. After a beautiful Dance of the Flowers, Mother Ginger arrives in her ginormous hoop skirt; in this production, children do not run out from under her skirt, but rather pop out from the folds while a rhythmic gymnastic troupe takes the stage. The scene closes with perhaps the biggest textual change: A dance written as a romantic pas de deux between the Sugar Plum Fairy and her cavalier is instead performed with three male dancers—the Nutcracker Prince and the Arabian and Russians soloists—sharing her attentions (her final leap into the arms of the three men was a nice touch).  All the lead performers in Saturday’s matinee—Vonne Roden as Clara, Trinity Santoro as the Sugar Plum Fairy, Aiden Moss as the Nutcracker, Kremnev as Drosselmeyer, and Megan Wefel as the Flower Lead—excelled. Dancers with small companies such as A&A often play multiple roles, and Ivan Aguayo rates a hat tip for performing a near-sighted and tipsy grandfather in the party scene, the Mouse King, and the male Russian dancer.  Costumes in the Art Deco Nutcracker were striking. Photo by Dan Swinson. The atmosphere at the Athenaeum was anything but stuffy, which isn’t always the case with ballet audiences. Way back (I won’t say how way back), my wife and I, on one of our first dates, saw a New York City Ballet performance of George Balanchine’s famed version of The Nutcracker (the one in which a giant Christmas tree rises into the rafters). Walking down a crowded staircase at the end, we overheard a woman make the sublimely snotty comment about a ballerina whose “arms were too long” for the role. This became a decades-long running joke between us; at the end of a performance, one of us will turn to the other and say, “It was fine, but his/her arms were too long.”  A&A Ballet’s The Art Deco Nutcracker was a genuine seasonal treat, and no one’s arms were too long.  The company’s next scheduled performance, on May 14 at the Athenaeum, is a double bill of Igor Stravinsky’s The Firebird and Carnival of the Animals by Camille Saint-Saens. 
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Bob Benenson

Bob Benenson is publisher/writer/photographer of Local Food Forum, a new newsletter that covers the broad sweep of the Chicago region’s food community. He is a longtime advocate for a better, healthier, more sustainable food system and is an avid home cook who gets most of his delicious ingredients from local farmers.