Christopher Wheeldon forges a 'Nutcracker' that dreams for Chicago

Joffrey Ballet
Chicago Tribune

You might be surprised to learn that home — sweet home Chicago, you might say — is the dominant theme of Christopher Wheeldon's "The Nutcracker," the extraordinarily rich, beautiful and emotionally potent new civic contribution from a choreographer who is, in no small part, a populist determined to increase the audience for ballet not so much by transforming, or even augmenting, its narrative capabilities, but revealing them to those who have not been looking, or those willing to look only once a year. For the sake of the kids.

For while one might see "The Nutcracker" as a stultifying manifestation of the stagnation of traditional balletic expectation and thus expression, Wheeldon, his collaborators from Broadway and the emotionally re-ignited dancers of the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago, clearly see it as a singularly cool and viable opportunity for total transformation

The power of this all-new work — and make no mistake, it reaches far inside you without any recourse to conventional sentimentality — is in its dominant metaphor, the Chicago World's Columbian Exposition of 1893, as fleshed out in a new story, a wordless but palpable book by Brian Selznick, who also penned "The Invention of Hugo Cabret," with which this new work shares both an emotional vocabulary and an unstinting choreographic dedication to the narrative psychology of a child. No designer working today is as dedicated to point of view as Julian Crouch, whose sets really are dreamscapes. As lit by Natasha Katz and combined with magic by Basil Twist, they pulse with childlike point of view.

A moon here. A puff of smoke there. All baked in to what you are watching. The combination of Crouch's temporal sense of place and the unflinching trajectory of a Joffrey dancer, her body cutting across space and melding with exteriors that feel like extensions of her corporal communication, is a formidable artistic weapon. In its best and truest moments, it's not unlike watching dancers dancing within their own hearts. 

This is most striking when you watch Victoria Jaiani, the Queen of the Fair, either alone or alongside the life-force of her impresario, performing, quite astonishingly, what you might think of as a ballet of fixed point, a statuesque exploration of what it means for a statue to come to life — and, also, what a young girl thinks when she stares at a statue that might well be the mother of all she ever has seen. Jaiani, and Blanco, show us all of that, and Assucena receives and expands their beauty.

Mothers are a big part of this story, actually. For the Queen of the Fair also is Marie's real-life mother, a sculptress, who, in that wooden room in Act 1, actually is forging what turns out to be her own maternal dominium, in the mind of her loving daughter, at least. Together, Wheeldon and Jaiani construct and embody a mother's love in such an extraordinarily aspirational fashion that it feels much like a reference to the role mothers play in every community Nutcracker across America, sacrificing their Decembers and bringing their children to play (in this show alone) soldiers, nutcrackers, junior snowflakes, walnuts, cavalry, ragamuffins, rats, worker girls, waves, dragons and baby snow. No Nutcracker could exist without willing parents, as Marie comes to see.

As this show settles for what will surely be a long and beloved annual engagement, accompanied by Chicagoans telling their visitors they've never seen this "Nutcracker," Wheeldon will, I suspect, be able to deepen everything on his canvas. He may well want to work with Assucena, whose excitement electrifies both her body and this show, on the notion that not everything wondrous that we see brings us joy, but can evoke the darker moments of life. Dreams can be the end of innocence, a theme Wheeldon puts firmly in play here and that can go much further. There is also something not quite right about the final sequence at the World's Fair — the climactic moment feels suddenly hurried and inorganic. It does not yet fully satisfy the emotional trajectory; this will be easier once Marie's journey increases in darkness and complexity and Velazquez gains yet more agency and point of view.

In the final moments of this show, Marie returns home. A home that her dream has changed. Maybe. It's hard to know how long such a change will last.

We also come to see, in a further masterstroke, that we've all come back to the Auditorium, a standing legacy of this balletic World's Fair that blazes brightly in this show as the home of an exceptional Chicago composition that surely will travel far and wide, and might just help resurrect our history of audacious innovation, this clearly being an artistic endeavor to patch the bullet holes in a great civic canvas.

We can only dream like Marie. 

Read the rest of the review here