Joffrey Ballet’s new ‘Nutcracker’ a gift of astonishments

Joffrey Ballet
Chicago Sun Times

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To give just the smallest hint of what the Joffrey Ballet’s astonishing world premiere production of choreographer Christopher Wheeldon’s game-changing version of “The Nutcracker” manages to do, it might be best to describe one scene in the work that opened Saturday night at the Auditorium Theatre — just as Mother Nature added her own special effects by way of the season’s first snowstorm.


The ballet, with a wonderfully re-imagined story line by Brian Selznick, unfolds on the Christmas Eve about five months prior to the May 1893 opening of the Columbian Exposition in Chicago — the monumental World’s Fair that heralded the arrival of this city as a major center of architecture, technology and world culture. Construction of the fair is still underway as a holiday party begins in the rustic workshop of the female sculptor — a Polish immigrant, and single mother of a teenage girl, Marie, and her younger brother, Franz — who is crafting the Expo’s emblematic Columbia sculpture, a gilded bronze figure holding aloft a globe and a plaque reading “Liberty.”


Making a surprise visit to the party is The Great Impresario, a Daniel Burnham-like figure in a cape and top hat, who gathers on a table all the objects “lifted” by the street urchins whose parents also work on the Fair ground. Soon, as a muslin curtain is drawn in front of the table, a shadow play gets underway, and all these random objects coalesce into a model of the fairgrounds, complete with the world’s first Ferris Wheel. Pure magic.


And there is far more to come, for Wheeldon (acclaimed as director and choreographer of the Broadway hit, “An American in Paris”), is a man of the theater as well as of the ballet, and he knows how to make every element of the stage “dance” in the service of storytelling.


The Impresario (Miguel Angel Blanco), clearly is attracted to the sculptress (Victoria Jaiani), but he also showers his attention on Marie (Amanda Assucena), the artist’s daughter, whose gift is a Nutcracker Prince she adores. (A slew of cracked walnuts, played by student dancers, appears later, in the ballet’s most hilarious scene.) But it is Marie’s Christmas Eve dream that sets the story in motion, beginning as a pathetic little evergreen morphs into a stage —enveloping Christmas tree. Soon, a war erupts between the suddenly handsome young life-sized Nutcracker, Prince Peter (Alberto Velazquez), and the nasty Rat King (a scurrilous Rory Hohenstein), and his army of mice (whose presence make perfect sense now, given this is a construction site).


Before the first act is over, there also is a great, silvery snowstorm, and then Marie sails onto the Fair’s lagoon on a giant white stone gondola, along with the Prince and Impresario. By the second act they are surrounded by posh visitors to the Fair, and are treated to the elaborate performances of dancers from the many international pavilions. The love affairs between The Impresario and Mother, and Marie and the Prince, are captured in lavish pas de deux.