Christopher Wheeldon’s “The Nutcracker”

Christopher Wheeldon’s “The Nutcracker”

Dance Review by Sarah Frye

Rating 4 out of 4

You can’t turn around the corner in December without running into an ad for a production of the Nutcracker. Everyone from small studios to schools to professional companies gear up every year to perform the classic Christmas ballet. This year brought an extra element of anticipation with the Joffrey Ballet’s world premiere of Christopher Wheeldon’s The Nutcracker. Wheeldon is the recent winner of the 2015 Tony Award for Best Choreography for An American in Paris and created the first new production since Robert Joffrey’s original ballet that ran for nearly thirty years.

Wheeldon flips the script by setting his ballet in the five months prior to the opening of the 1893 Chicago Columbian World’s Exposition instead of a wealthy Victorian-era family. The story focuses on a migrant worker family: Marie (played beautifully by Cara Marie Gary), her brother Franz (Dylan Sengpiel) and their single mother (April Daly); who is creating a sculpture for the Exposition. Filling the role of Drosselmeyer is the Great Impresario (Fabrice Calmels) who gifts Marie her nutcracker. Remaining is the battle of the Mouse King and the Nutcracker who prevails with the help of Marie. Instead of a land of sweets Marie and her Nutcracker Prince (Yoshihisa Arai) are led by the Impresario to the Exposition where we see fair goers and vendors from around the world (and a special appearance by Buffalo Bill).

Reimagining the classic Nutcracker is no easy feat but Wheeldon’s innovative version shines bright as is relevant in our current world climate. The party scene takes place in a shack with the workers coming to celebrate Christmas Eve and delight us in their folk dancing and the Impressario’s vision for the fair. However, at times throughout the show, you have to wonder about Marie. She comes from a poor background with dirty and tattered clothes but is then magically transformed into pointe shoes and three beautiful new dresses. Is Marie destined to only dream her way out of poverty? By the end, all worries are set aside for Marie and her family. If you’re a ballet purist, this might not be your preferred version of the Nutcracker. We start with the classical male and female duet choreography in the migrant workers’ folk dances but by the time we get to the Snowflakes, we’ve progressed to contemporary dance with the very angular movements of the snowflakes. It isn’t overtly obvious to the once a year ballet-goer but it’s in the sharp, straight arm lines versus curved arms and the flat à la seconde instead of écarté or croisé that the post-modernist appears.

Wheeldon’s Nutcracker is in every way a spectacle. With a $4 million budget, you’re expected to be wowed and he doesn’t disappoint. From the costuming and puppetry to the sets and projections; you’re never bored for an instant. There is always something happening on stage and the surrounding area. The production crew is a who’s who of award winners and renowed artists: Music Director Scott Speck, set and costume designer Julian Crouch, author and illustrator Brian Selznick, puppeteer Basil Twist, lighting designer Natasha Katz and production designer Ben Pearcy. These artists together create a dynamic production that alone should be seen.

While not entirely a new idea (several other companies have explored a poor family and World’s Fair for the Nutcracker, it still remains a new ballet for the Joffrey and for Chicago. In this day when companies are trying to maintain relevancy and their place in the field; Wheeldon and the leaders at the Joffrey have taken a chance in creating something new for this particular company that pays off in the end.