Review: Two Winners in the Nutcracker Ballet Relay

My interest in classical music was weaned on Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker ballet. So I leapt at the opportunity to do a Nutcracker relay last Saturday: the matinee opening of the Joffrey Ballet’s Chicago-centric version, and an evening performance of The Art Deco Nutcracker by the local, community-focused A&A Ballet.

I will remember it as one of my best days in 2022.

The similarity between these two productions is that they transport the scene from a mansion in Germany to America. The Joffrey’s Nutcracker—conceived and choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon with a book by Brian Selznick—is set at the 1893 Columbian Exposition. A&A’s version, choreographed by Alexei Kremnev, places the story in a mansion in an unnamed city in the 1920s.

Otherwise, these were two very different productions. The Joffrey, being performed through December 27 at Lyric Opera House, is one of the world’s great ballet companies, and both the dancing and stagecraft make it two hours of some of the most spectacular theater you’ll ever witness. A&A Ballet, a school on the South Side, does two public productions each year; its matinee and evening shows on Dec. 3 at the Athenaeum Theatre were its only performances of The Art Deco Nutcracker.

Both, though, were very entertaining on their own terms.

The set design added a dazzling element to the Joffrey Ballet's Chicago-centric version of The Nutcracker. Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

Joffrey's Nutcracker Is a Feast for the Eyes, Ears and Heart

It isn’t too often that a set designer gets mentioned in the lead of a review. But the scenery and projections designed by Julian Crouch make Joffrey’s The Nutcracker simply the most gorgeous stage production I’ve ever witnessed, and it makes totally captivating what would have been a brilliant ballet performance on its own.

The traditional Nutcracker story is largely re-written. The biggest change is the transition of the mysterious Herr Drosselmeyer in the original to the Impresario of the fair, charismatically performed by Dylan Gutierrez in the Dec. 3 matinee, who plays a much more central role in the story and dancing.

The action still swirls around a young girl (Marie in this version, performed by Yumi Kanazawa, and Clara in the original) and her nutcracker toy turned prince (Hyuma Kiyosawa). But this adaptation is just as much a story of the growing love between The Impresario and Maria’s mother (Jeraldine Mendoza), a sculptor creating the golden goddess statue (the Statue of the Republic) that presided over the fair.

The gathering in Act I takes place at the mother’s humble house, with laborers from the fairgrounds dancing to a trio of violin, accordion and clarinet on stage. The Impresario arrives with his assistant (Kiyosawa) to hand out gifts, including Marie’s nutcracker toy. After the guests leave, Marie falls asleep and dreams of the Nutcracker slaying the Rat (not Mouse) King and becoming the prince. They witness the Dance of the Snowflakes (both women and men dancers) amid a blizzard of fake snow, then sail off in a gondola that The Impresario steers toward the fair.

The creative story re-telling steps up a notch in Act II. Marie’s mother becomes the Queen of the Fair, a life-size version of the golden statue. There is no Land of the Sweets, so no Sugar Plum Fairy (her parts are danced by the lead characters and fairgoers). Rather than representing candies and beverages, the ethnic dances (e.g. Spanish chocolate, Arabian coffee, Chinese tea) take place in the fair’s international pavilions. There is the singular addition of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, replete with a cowboy doing rope tricks amid his leaps and twirls.

The Impresario (Dylan Gutierrez) and Queen of the Fair (Geraldine Mendoza) danced a romantic pas de deux in the Joffrey's The Nutcracker. Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

The dream sequence culminates in the pas de deux. Traditionally danced to Tchaikovsky’s luminous composition by the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier, here it is performed with breathtaking beauty by The Impresario and the Queen of the Fair. I have seen this ballet uncounted times, and this was the first time I had tears in my eyes.

I won’t spoil the ending but will just say one of Marie’s dreams comes true, providing a lovely and romantic coda to a fabulous entertainment.

The Joffrey is a company in which the dancers appear to be floating and gliding on air, so it is hard to single out individuals from the supporting cast. Those who made an impression included Victoria Jaiani for perhaps the sexiest interpretation of the Arabian dance ever, and Valentino Moneglia Zamora, who as the cowboy in the Buffalo Bill segment didn’t waste a moment of his brief time on stage.

The Lyric Opera Orchestra provided strong musical support under the baton of Scott Speck, who is also the lead conductor of Chicago Philharmonic. Another shout out: the puppeteers of Basil Twist offered terrifyingly realistic rats that scurried around the stage in Act I.

The next performance of Joffrey’s The Nutcracker is Friday (December 9) at 7pm; click here for tickets priced at $36-$193 (a bit higher for Saturday and Sunday performances). There are single performances at 7pm on December 15, 16 and 21, and two performances each on December 10, 11, 17 and 18, 22, 23, 24, 26 and 27.

The A&A Ballet Nutcracker troupe. Image courtesy A&A Ballet.

Lower Budget, Much Talent and Creativity

A&A Ballet’s Nutcracker budget is a fraction of the Joffrey’s, the music is recorded, and most of the dancers are very young. Still, at the community ballet level, the company can take pride in the dancing talent and creativity exhibited in its take on the famed ballet.

The costume design by Laura Skarich does a great job of conveying the Art Deco era in which this adaptation is set. The outfits in the Act II dances were striking; they included the Russian dancers decked out in fur hats, and the Arabian dancers with the woman in a sequined body suit and the man with a snake prop wound around his shoulders and arms. The dancing dragon in the Chinese segment was a lot of fun.

The urban American setting aside, the A&A version of The Art Deco Nutcracker sticks close to the traditional script, with Kremnev—the choreographer and director of the company—driving the action in the role of Drosselmeyer. There is one major wrinkle: The pas de deux becomes a pas de quatre, with a Russian and the Arabian male dancers charmingly competing with the Cavalier for the attentions of the Sugar Plum Fairy.

Children played a much more significant dancing role in the A&A version, including an aww-inducing scene of tots dressed as baby mice just before the battle between the Nutcracker and the Mouse King. A large proportion of the audience was made up of parents and other relatives of the dancers, adding to the production’s homey charms.

You’ll have to wait until next year to see The Art Deco Nutcracker. A&A’s next performance is a double-bill of Coppélia and Sleepover at the Museum, scheduled for May 13 at the Athenaeum Theatre.

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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.