The Tchaikovsky holiday confection is so gooey sweet that many dance
cognoscente view it much the way theater aficionados view productions of
“A Christmas Carol.” Thankfully, the late Robert Joffrey did not share
that view. As a choreographer, Joffrey came to “The Nutcracker” rather
late, offering the premiere of his “American” slant on the ballet for
what turned out to be the last Christmas of his life, in 1987.
Once the ballet company that bears Joffrey’s name made Chicago its
home in 1995, it was inevitable that Joffrey’s particular conception of
the work would make its way into the already crowded local “Nutcracker”
marketplace. At that point in time, the Ruth Page “Nutcracker” had held
sway here since 1965, but ceased in 1997, six years after Page’s death.
In the decade and a half that Joffrey’s “Nutcracker” has been
presented in Chicago, however, it has emerged as the definitive version.
For most of those years, Joffrey’s partner and company co-founder
Gerald Arpino lovingly looked after Joffrey’s vision until his death in
2008, and the details and choreography of both Joffrey and Arpino are
carefully preserved in the current production.
Joffrey’s conception of “The Nutcracker” is a fairy-tale ballet in
Victorian America, say Boston, circa 1850. The look, at least as he
described it, is Currier & Ives, with muted purples, pinks and
aquas. What has always most stood out in the Joffrey version is the
transformation to the world of Clara’s imagination as a land of
sugarplum fairies and waltzing snowflakes that is as beautiful as it is
The snowy winter wonderland remains a magical, silver snowscape where
we are treated to the “Waltz of the Snowflakes,” complete with a live
children’s chorus, courtesy of the Oak Park and River Forest Children’s
Chorus. The dance revue that makes up Act II is gracefully performed,
yet isn’t afraid to display a sense of humor when appropriate, including
a giant gingerbread puppet.
The most distracting element of this production has always been the
return of Drosselmeyer, the Act I magician who gives Clara her magical
nutcracker. In this version, he is little more than a
silent-movie-villain caricature complete with black cape and moustache,
and he inexplicitly reappears in Act II to needlessly “guide” Clara’s
dream and her dancers. (At least the company no longer reprises music
from Act I in between virtually all of the famous ethnic dances, a
jarring effect which showed a total disregard for Tchaikovsky’s
carefully constructed and colorful score.)
It also remains disappointing that the beginning of Act I is little
more than a crowd of people—mostly children—haphazardly moving around on
stage, but the “March of the Wooden Soldiers,” which used to be just
children skipping around, now appears to have some actual dancing to it.
When Joffrey first came to Chicago, the music was canned, but over
the years, a terrific partnership has developed with the Chicago
Sinfonietta, which this year is being conducted with considerable
flourish and nuance by Tito Munoz. (Dennis Polkow)
Through December 26, Auditorium Theatre, 50 East Congress Parkway, (800)982-2787.
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