Sunday, December 03, 2017

Boundless Imagination: Joffrey Ballet's 'The Nutcracker' as Reconceived by Christopher Wheeldon, is Simply Ravishing -- Chicago Ballet Review

Dance Review

The Nutcracker
choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon
Joffrey Ballet
at the Auditorium Theatre, Chicago
Thru December 30 (Seen December 1)

Simply at face value, I have nothing but effusive praise for The Nutcracker I saw performed by the Joffrey Ballet Friday night at the Auditorium.

While I won't pretend to be a ballet aficionado or expert, all of the dancing was sublime.

The lead performers, who I'll cite below, and the large ensemble--including a vast number of children--were entirely delightful.

The Chicago Philharmonic performed Tchaikovsky's score splendidly. In fact, just the music itself would have well justified my attendance and great appreciation.

And from the brilliant set and costumes (by Julian Crouch) to some cheeky rat puppetry designed by Basil Twist, the ballet was bursting with visual vibrance.

Given the thunderous ovation bestowed by the packed opening night crowd, including former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley--I didn't actually see him, but his attendance was noted by Joffrey's artistic & executive directors, Ashley Wheater & Greg Cameron, respectively, in a pre-show welcome where they saluted his support when the company relocated to Chicago in 1995, and dedicated the performance to him--I think it's safe to say the masses liked what they saw and heard.

Photo credit on all: Cheryl Mann
But as The Nutcracker--perhaps the world's most popular ballet--has been a holiday staple and family favorite for decades, seared into the memories of children and the adults they become, what makes this Joffrey production so noteworthy is that acclaimed choreographer Christopher Wheeldon had the vision, and chutzpah, to re-imagine every aspect.

And in spectacular fashion, he and his cohorts--not to mention the magnificent dancers--pull it off. (This is year two of the Joffrey's Wheeldon version, but the first time I saw it.)

Certainly, the original story by E.T.A. Hoffmann and the revised version by Alexandre Dumas, which Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky set to sublime music for a ballet—first choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov in 1892 at Saint Petersburg's Mariinsky Theatre—supplied much of The Nutcracker's underlying brilliance.

And numerous productions throughout the years--including by George Balanchine (1954) and Mikhail Barishnikov (1976)--have in one way or other employed significant variances.

Until last year, the renowned Joffrey Ballet version seen in Chicago since 1995 was one choreographed by company founder, Robert Joffrey, in 1987. Many locals may understandably consider that their blueprint, but--not that I really remember it--I first saw The Nutcracker when my Aunt Mickey took me in the early '70s, likely before I was 5. (I lobbied hard after she initially intended to just take my sisters.)

After never seeing the ballet, anywhere, since my toddler days, I went in 2015 to see the Robert Joffrey production--set in an affluent American household such as depicted by Currier & Ives--before it disappeared, and I absolutely loved it.

So if patrons arrive at the Auditorium with a certain sentimentality, or perhaps a longing to introduce the Nutcracker of their youth to their own offspring, they may well be surprised to find that in the Wheeldon version, there is no girl named Clara, she isn't given a nutcracker doll by an uncle named Drosselmeyer and the nutcracker doesn't become a handsome prince.

Also, as far I could tell, there are no Sugar Plum Fairies.

But most of the world's greatest achievements--artistic and otherwise--have come from daring to do something different, even audacious.

And beyond being entertainment of the highest order, nearly every moment of this 2-hour Nutcracker--in almost every aspect--palpably dances with awe-inspiring imagination.

The kind--while understanding the hyperbole of such exalted references--that truly ignites only a few times per generation.

Hamlet, The Marriage of Figaro, A Tale of Two Cities, Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, The Wizard of Oz, Fantasia (which incorporates the Nutcracker Suite), West Side Story, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Blazing Saddles, Star Wars, Les Miserables (the musical), Harry Potter, The Lion King on Broadway, Hamilton. And whatever you might add to the list.

No, I'm not saying this iteration of The Nutcracker is as good, or groundbreaking, as any or all of these hallowed works of visionary creativity.

And after having my mind-blown the Sunday prior by the incomparable Savion Glover, and a month before by the gale storm of Arcade Fire in concert, etc., etc., I well know that imagination, inspiration and virtuosity come in many forms, often hard to measure other than through joy and, perhaps, enlightenment.

But starting with the font choice for "The Nutcracker" title on the stage scrim that welcomed us into the auditorium (of the Auditorium), everything about this production impressed me, often to "OMG!" levels, mentally if not verbally.

As I knew from having watched the WTTW documentary, Making a New American Nutcracker--you should be able to see it here--Wheeldon has, unprecedentedly, and explicitly for Chicago, tied the story of The Nutcracker to the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893, its neoclassical "White City" (grandiose, mostly temporary, architecture in what is now Chicago's Jackson Park) and the multicultural Midway, featuring the world’s first Ferris Wheel.

Certainly, Wheeldon--who directed & choreographed the recent Broadway musical version of An American in Paris, along with a long list of ballet credits--had plenty of help.

In addition to the set/costume designer and puppet master mentioned above, Joffrey leadership and many others, key to this production is story adapter Brian Selznick, best known for authoring the children's book The Invention of Hugo Cabret, which was turned into the 2011 Martin Scorsese movie, Hugo, which I love.

Rather than the traditional Clara, the young woman at the center of this Nutcracker is--as per Hoffmann's original story--named Marie (wonderfully enacted at the 12/1 performance by Amanda Assucena). Amid surroundings far more plebeian than the well-heeled norm, she and her younger brother Franz (Dylan Sengpiel) live among an ethnically-diverse community of workers prepping the Fair, with their mom (the superb Victoria Jaiani) being a sculptress.

Rather inventively, she is working on the Statue of the Republic, a gilded 65-foot tall sculpture (actually by Daniel Chester French. Like most of the World's Fair except the building now housing the Museum of Science & Industry, it was destroyed by fire soon after. A 1/3-size but rather impressive replica stands in Jackson Park.)

And later, in a dream of Marie's, her mom becomes a living embodiment of the golden statue.

In real life--beyond the ballet--famed Chicago architect Daniel Burnham was the primary planner and designer of the Columbian Exposition, which put the Windy City on the world stage, forever. (Burnham's contemporary, Louis Sullivan, designed the Auditorium building, which opened in 1889, so seeing The Nutcracker there adds to the appreciation for Chicago's storied history.)

In narrative stead of the often rather odd Drosselmeyer, Wheeldon and Selznick invented The Great Impresario of the Fair (Miguel Angel Blanco) as something of an ersatz Burnham. He's the one who winds up giving Marie a nutcracker doll, while also becoming rather smitten with her mother.

Although I think it's an excellent idea for anyone attending this Nutcracker to watch the hour-long WTTW special and to arrive early enough to read the brief synopsis in the program--fully deciphering all that's going on from the music, dance and design may be tricky on a first encounter with this new rendition--I never like revealing too many specifics.

But while I was stupefied by how amazing the first act was, post intermission is even better, not just because of the greater preponderance of music I've relished since childhood.

Drawing from, but re-conceiving, aspects of more traditional versions, here Marie and her prince (Alberto Velazquez, who doesn't play the nutcracker) encounter--in beautifully balletic form--Spanish, Arabian, Chinese, Venetian and Wild West dancers, the latter gleefully including Buffalo Bill (Dylan Gutierrez).

Plus a group of dancing walnuts that truly cracked me up. 

Whereas Act I featured some brilliantly imaginative group dance numbers celebrating the diversity of the Fair workers, including an Eastern European folk dance, Act II has more overtly beautiful ballet, by Marie, the Prince, her mom, the Impresario and the ethnic combos or soloists.

Especially as the casts rotate, I won't take the time & space to name all the wondrous dancers I saw, but the Arabian dance couple--Fabrice Calmels and Christine Rocas, who has been blissfully beguiling in all of the (relatively few) Joffrey ballets I've seen in recent years--were particularly fantastic.

Obviously, I bestowed fervent applause for what I had witnessed, but also all that had clearly gone into it.

The Joffrey, Wheeldon and everyone involved are to be saluted not only for the exhilarating imagination and incredible performances, but for broadening the appeal of The Nutcracker, cross-culturally and socioeconomically.

So even though a production of this quality--more lavish than many Broadway shows I've seen--obviously isn't inexpensive to stage, I'm hoping it can also be financially accessible across the spectrum.

Hence I'll note that there are tickets priced as low as $35 through the box office, military discounts and possibilities to save via Goldstar and HotTix.

You may not consider yourself a ballet buff--I don't--or may perceive that The Nutcracker is slight holiday fare for kids. (The Joffrey website recommends it for "children ages 5 and up.")

Or perhaps, when it comes to this revered title, you're a stickler for "the way it used to be."

But if you admire imagination and multifaceted greatness, this really is a show—and a unique rendition—not to be missed.

Rare genius is on display.

From oversized nutcracker heads down to up on tippy-toes. 

1 comment:

Hemingway1955 said...

Le Danse des Bouffons tres bien!!