Chicago’s Nutcracker

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photo by Cheryl Mann

The Joffrey Ballet’s new presentation of The Nutcracker came in with a flash, but fully demonstrated its intention to become a fixture in the Chicago performing arts scene. Choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon, the production will run until December 30.

I appreciated the connection to Chicago with the production taking place during the construction for World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893. It’s a musicologist and dramturg’s dream. The ballet, The Nutcracker, was written in 1892 and the historic Auditorium Theatre was finished in 1889.

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The Statue of the Republic was built for the World’s Fair and a replica still stands in Jackson Park today.

In Act I, the World’s Fair connection seemed a slightly disconnected from the party at Marie’s house (the character of Clara). I did like that instead of the typical upper-class family in the Nutcracker, this family was much more modest. Their home is modeled after the below photo of the construction site, courtesy of the Chicago History Museum. The mother is a sculptor for the fair, which is a nice connection when she doubles as the statue of the republic in Act II. The Grand Impressario is the Drosselmeyer character and enters the party with cape-twirling magic tricks that come alive with project.

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Their humble home comes alive with guests and a small ensemble of musicians. I thought it was a nice touch to have a small trio of musicians on stage to resemble what a real party would be like for people of their means at the time. Even though the production has a magnificent orchestra, the Chicago Philharmonic, I liked that the stage musicians gave a feeling of reality and gave consistency to the adaptation. I would have even liked to see the musical adaptation push the boundary further.

The highlight of the production for me was the Waltz of the Snowflakes. The choreography was a delightful balance of classical elements and contemporary shapes.  It was inspiring to see the traditional and the original married together so seamlessly in this number.The partnering was exquisite and the children’s corps actually did real dancing (which can sometimes be rare in the Nutcracker.)

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photo by Cheryl Mann

Although the Royal Ballet’s Snowflakes is beautiful, the uniformity of the blonde wigs destroys the dancers’ individualism. I appreciated in this new production that the dancers were aligned with precision, but diverse in their appearance.

In Act II the World’s Fair concept made sense of the Spanish, Chinese, Arabian, and Russian inspired segments. I thought the country pastiches were better integrated into the performance, but they are still cringe-worthy cultural appropriations. Although, that is really what the world fair’s did to a lot of cultures. Cultures were put on display  I would have appreciated another video newspaper montage going into depth about the cultures represented and the surface level of experiencing the “world” at the world’s fair.

Chinese people were shown at the World’s Fair in an opium den. Black people were not represented, and in the worst cases, presented as primitives. On the stage, beautiful dancers of different races twirl in bright pastel outfits as fair goers. But hey, it is technically all a dream. Though this adds a layer of revisionist history. An all white production team and an almost exclusively male creative team complicates the production further.
It’s being called”Christopher Wheeldon’s Nutcracker,” but I think it really is more like “Chicago’s Nutcracker.” It feels like a gift to the city. Chicago’s history is showcased, however optimistically, with a family of meager means and dancers from many countries and backgrounds. I truly hope it is a performance that will be a standard for all Chicagoans, of many backgrounds to enjoy going forward.

Now, I don’t want to spoil anything here, but…THE LIGHTS! Wow, the spectacle of the projections and the lights was truly stunning. It was clear that the company wanted to invest in giving this production impact and lasting power. The lights weren’t just superfluous, but integrated the the production with the space  to create magical settings.

I elaborated on themes of Chicago, Christmas, projections lights to overlay Chicago monuments over Christmas lights.

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The individual lights are all different colors and have a gradient to show a diverse representation. Together, the give off more shine. The monuments are from the World’s Fair, but some of them still hold ground today. The Statue of the Republic, The Museum of Science and Industry, we now have a new Ferris Wheel are all symbols of our city. We like to keep these monuments as mementos of our past as representative of our identity. Similarly to the Nutcracker, they maintain tradition, but update to our current considerations.

This new production of the Nutcracker pushes the boundary just enough to reveal new elements about the show,while still being a holiday favorite.

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