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Joffrey Ballet finds fresh magic in ‘Nutcracker’ newly choreographed, reimagined in Chicago

Submitted by on Dec 16, 2016 – 5:16 pm
Amanda Assucena and Alberto Velazquez as Marie and the Nutcracker Prince. Various Joffrey dancers cycle through the principal roles. (Cheryl Mann)“The Nutcracker,” new production choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon for Joffrey Ballet, at Auditorium Theatre through Dec. 30. ★★★★★
By Lawrence B. Johnson

It is St. Petersburg on Lake Michigan, the Joffrey Ballet’s magical – and relocated – new production of “The Nutcracker.” Indeed, from a historical perspective, this rethought creation by choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, visually enchanting and musically satisfying, is even more clever than it might appear.

Snowflakes dance before a vision of the 1893 Columbian Exposition. (Cheryl Mann)Wheeldon and story-writer Brian Selznick have set “The Nutcracker” as a vision of the 1893 Columbian World’s Exposition on the Chicago lakefront: a dream of the young heroine Marie as she sleeps in her humble home near the exposition construction site in the winter of 1892. And that is the double catch. It was on Dec. 18, 1892, that the original “Nutcracker,” choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov to music by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, had its world premiere at the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg.

But what, an anxious devotee of this legendary ballet might ask, does the Columbian Expo have to do with the beloved story of an adolescent girl, her Nutcracker Prince and their visit to the glittering realm of the Snow Queen? Everything.

To begin at the end, surely the “The Nutcracker” centerpiece for most folks anyway, the great scene of the divertissement, with its series of international character dances, becomes a mini tour of world pavilions at the Exposition. How Marie – the girl called Clara in traditional stagings – gets there is a masterstroke of story-telling and a coup de théatre.

The Impresario (Miguel Angel Blanco) and the Queen of the Fair (Victoria Jaiani) in their pas de deux. (Cheryl Mann)The familiar Christmas party that sets the ballet in motion takes place in the meager home of Marie and her widowed mother – a dwelling made pragmatically spacious for a company of dancers but still decidedly not grand. The dark guest we all know as Drosselmeyer becomes, in this telling, the Great Impresario of the Fair. (Think of him as a wealthy backer.) He presents Marie with the prized Nutcracker. Meanwhile, the neighborhood rat-catcher joins the party as lots of creepy little puppet rats scurry at the edges.

That night, as the scrawny Christmas tree in the parlor swells to gigantic splendor, Marie dreams of a battle between her Nutcracker, now a heroic soldier, and a gang of huge rats – the rat-catcher having morphed into the Rat King. The girl helps the Nutcracker prevail, and they are transported via a splendid gondola into a vision of a Dream Fair. Now we’re back on familiar ground.

Masked Venetians perform a pas de trois during the divertissement. (Cheryl Mann)Wheeldon, whose choreography for the Broadway hit “An American in Paris” transformed that show into an elegant ballet-musical, has brought his airy style to bear on “The Nutcracker” to ethereal effect. Physical grace and musical fluidity touch every gesture of choreography that seems weightless, as if suspended from above rather than anchored by gravity.

In the performance I saw, Cara Marie Gary was a lithe and lovely Marie, credible in that yearning eagerness and uncertainty between girlhood and its transformation. Her Prince – the Impresario’s apprentice transmogrified – was the athletic and innately patrician Yoshihisa Arai.

To a great degree, the magic of this new “Nutcracker” derives from the imagination of projection designer Benjamin Pearcy, who first festoons the stage with motifs of the Columbian Exposition and that massively risen Christmas tree, then creates an eye-popping, heart-thrilling fairyland of flora and snow.

Fabrice Calmels and Christine Rocas execute the Arabian dance. (Cheryl Mann)The Joffrey dancers, buoyed by Wheeldon’s otherworldly choreography, fairly floated home from there. The delicious divertissement produced a lusty Spanish dance, a bustling Chinese solo (Derrick Agnoletti attended by two long, slithering dragons), a classical trio of Venetian masked dancers and – in place of the usual Russians – Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, complete with two-gun-totin’, lasso-spinnin’ Edson Barbosa and three mighty purdy saloon gals. But the pièce de résistance was the languorous Arabian dance by Jeraldine Mendoza and Temur Suluashvili, whose delicate port de bras and sculptural intertwining brought the show to a full stop amid roaring applause.

In this “Nutcracker,” the Sugar Plum Fairy is reincarnated as the Queen of the Fair, but in her golden gown April Daly rendered the difference moot with an exquisite solo and a grand pas de deux with Fabrice Calmels’ stately Impresario. The company of Snowflakes displayed not only supple ensemble dancing but also shimmering raiment typical of the altogether fetching costume and set designs of Julian Crouch.

The Chicago Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Scott Speck provided accompaniment as colorful as it was technically sure. Here was a bewitching “Nutcracker” that enthralled from its source in Tchaikovsky’s enchanted music to the far side of dreamland.

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The Nutcracker and the Rat King lead their forces into battle. (Cheryl Mann)

A magic gondola conveys the Nutcracker Prince and Marie to Chicago's Columbia Exposition. (Cheryl Mann)

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