Monday, December 14, 2015

Sugar Plum Fairytale: Joffrey's 'The Nutcracker' Is All It's Cracked Up to Be -- Chicago Ballet Review

Ballet / Dance / Theater Review

The Nutcracker
a Robert Joffrey production
by the Joffrey Ballet
Auditorium Theatre, Chicago
Thru December 27, 2015
(Seen Dec 11; Cast List)

I remember my Aunt Mickey taking me to see The Nutcracker when I was very young.

Supposedly, she was intending to take my sisters, and I insisted that I should get to go, too.

So I did.

I'm thinking perhaps I was around 7, but my mom thinks it was likely even earlier. I thought the performance was at the old Goodman Theatre space at the Art Institute, but my mom believes we went to the Arie Crown Theater. 

Obviously, recollections are a bit fuzzy, but the Tchaikovsky ballet has been something of a touchstone in my life, including the famous score.

Yet for something so ubiquitous, in my consciousness, across Chicago and far beyond every holiday season, it had been 40+ years since I had actually seen The Nutcracker. And I don't recall even seeing it much on TV.

Photo credit on all unless otherwise noted: Cheryl Mann
As with A Christmas Carol, which I finally saw for the first time just just two days earlier, my avoidance of The Nutcracker wasn't so much an acute aversion, but likely due in part to my not actively celebrating Christmas (being Jewish), not having children and, perhaps most of all, because I knew there would--God willing--be future opportunities, which served to make attending never an imminent priority.

Often, it is not until a long-running show, or even a particular musical performer, gets promoted along the lines of "the last time" or "final chance" that I opt to take action.

Such is the case with this year's production of Joffrey Ballet's The Nutcracker at the Auditorium Theatre. It has been running at the same venue for 20 holiday seasons, but this is the last time "Robert Joffrey's Nutcracker" is being presented. At least for now.

Robert Joffrey was a choreographer and founder of the ballet company that bears his name, which for a long time was based in New York City. In 1987, while dying from AIDS--he would pass in March 1988--he created a production of The Nutcracker that the Joffrey Ballet staged, though not in Chicago until 1995, when the company relocated here. (There is still a separate Joffrey Ballet School in NYC.)

This is the production that the Joffrey has been presenting annually at the Auditorium. Many people clearly must have considerable admiration and sentimentality for it, though it is obviously not the production I had seen way back when. (Not that I would remember differences.)

The Joffrey has announced that in 2016, it will stage a new production of The Nutcracker created by contemporary choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, which presumably will be presented for years to come.

It remains to be seen how much variance I would be able to discern, or really care about, if I eventually see the Wheeldon version, but the marketing of this being the last Joffrey rendition of its namesake's production piqued my interest more than in years past.

Likely by virtue of having attended a Joffrey ballet in February, I received a Black Friday email offer for discounted tickets to the performances on the the first two Fridays in December. Because I was fine taking a single seat next to two that were behind a post, I saw The Nutcracker this past Friday for just $22 + ticketing fees, with a vantage point comparable to those who had paid $86 + fees for seats nearby.

And while the dancing was phenomenal and scenery splendid, just hearing the Chicago Philharmonic Orchestra perform Tchaikovsky's score would have been worth the price of admission in itself.

I'm glad a plot summary in the program filled me in on the narrative, especially as being a bit tired on a Friday night I'm not sure if I would have fully caught onto the how or why of  holiday toys coming to life--including a nutcracker who becomes a prince.

Through Act I, I found the ballet highly enjoyable, with excellent dancing by Anastacia Holden as Clara, Michael Smith as her godfather Dr. Drosselmeyer, Rory Hohenstein as his nephew/the Nutcracker/Prince and April Daly as the Snow Queen--among others.

Photo credit: Herbert Migdoll
But as intimated by a guy in the men's restroom to another who was wary of having been dragged to the ballet, Act II was an especially wondrous delight, as almost all of the music was readily familiar--and magnificent--the choreography was even more demonstrably creative and the dancing fantastic.

During the second half of the 2-hour ballet, Clara and the Prince visit the Kingdom of Sweets, where dancers representing delectable treats from China, Arabia and elsewhere perform distinctively in mirthful costumes. (Check Wikipedia if you want a bit more of a basic synopsis.)

And getting the most dancing time, alone and in tandem with the prince, is the Sugar Plum Fairy.

Different ballerinas cover this--and other major roles--at various performances, and complementing Hohenstein on Friday night was Christine Rocas.

As I had bought my ticket for a night specified in a promotion, without any thought of checking the cast list prior to Friday afternoon, this was both a coincidence and treat.

Above I noted having attended a Joffrey ballet in February, which was in good part prompted by seeing Rocas and Hohenstein perform a dance from Romeo & Juliet at the Auditorium's 100th Anniversary celebration last December.

I didn't go to the program of multiple dances called Unique Voices with any knowledge that I would again see Rocas, but she happened to be in the performance I attended.

And the same thing happened on Friday, where not only did she dance in The Nutcracker--exquisitely, even perfectly per my decidedly non-expert opinion--but except for perhaps Hohenstein, probably spent more time on her toes than anyone else onstage.

I really don't mean this in any lecherous way, although Ms. Rocas is both remarkably talented and rather attractive, but it seems I was somehow destined to have a favorite ballerina.

And, until I witness otherwise, a favorite ballet. (I would like to see Swan Lake at some point, having tried unsuccessfully while in St. Petersburg, Russia some years back.)

And while I have read nothing but glowing things about Christopher Wheeldon, and would expect his Nutcracker to be a newfound joy--hopefully sooner than another 40+ years hence--Robert Joffrey's rendition provided a phenomenal intersection of lasting legacy and remarkable reintroduction.

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