Tuesday, December 27, 2016

The Joffrey's New Nutcracker

I don't get out to see the Joffrey Ballet's Nutcracker every year, but last year when we learned it was their final time producing their classic version we made it out to Chicago to soak it all in one last time. This month I got to see Christopher Wheeldon's new take on it.

I've seen other more local productions too throughout the years, and various movie versions/youtube clips, and typically each company doesn't vary too much from the classic story, scenes, and characters. The new Joffrey Nutcracker is certainly unique-it's set the Christmas before the opening of the Chicago World's Fair of 1893 (which introduced the first Ferris Wheel to the world, among other novelties-you're welcome, Earth!). Clara (whose name went back to Marie...possibly a nod to the Hoffman story?) is now the daughter of one of the immigrant workers on the Fair.  Her family lives in a shack on the developing Fair Grounds-one that was based on a historical photo.

So it's an interesting choice for a setting, although it may hold less appeal for out of towners. One of the most significant differences is that Marie is now poor, and the Christmas party scene looks very different. Purely from a visual perspective, the party scene isn't nearly as colorful or lush, but it makes for good exploration of what Christmas might have been like for most families around that time who couldn't necessarily afford the luxuries that Clara's family does in most ballets. From the program notes: "Instead of receiving luxurious and rare presents at a magnificent party in a vast house and then dreaming of even more presents and candy, our story offers a small gathering of immigrant workers coming together to celebrate the holiday with the things they have, filling the air with music and their vivid imaginations." When the tree transforms, it's significant not just because the tree magically grows, but because the tree originally started out as basically a cheap, Charlie Brown Christmas Tree that disappoints Marie, and it becomes a more lush and decorated tree in the process of growing.

The score is the same classic Tchaikovsky music, although with a few minor changes-during the party scene, some of the dances were played by three onstage musicians, as characters playing for the festivities. It added a sense of authenticity, although there were times I missed the full orchestra. The dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy (who is now the Queen of the Fair) was moved to earlier in Act 2 and I think at least one variation was removed (the Nutcracker or Cavalier's solo after the big Pas de Deux).

I like Chicago history as much as the next person,probably even more, and although the setting was interesting I almost felt by the end like we were being hit over the head with it, in almost propaganda-like fashion: "The Chicago World's Fair of 1893 was the greatest anyone could ever dream of!!!" The Fair isn't merely the setting with interesting themes to explore, it became the thing the ballet revolves around. The opening scene has a huge billboard advertising the coming of the Fair; instead of mechanical dolls at the party the Drosselmeyer character (the Great Impresario, modeled after the Fair's chief architect Daniel Burnham) creates a silhouette model of the Fair for the children; the Waltz of the Snowflakes was performed with the Fair in the background and the entire Land of Sweets was replaced by the Dream Fair. To be fair (haha...no pun intended), the setting did make sense of the dancers from all around the world, as the program compared the World's Fair to Disney World's Epcot, giving you a "taste" of different countries' cultures from around the world. Still, in the old Joffrey production that element was tied together by the dolls that came to life under the tree, each representing one of the dances in the second act.

One of the more disappointing changes for me, personally, was replacing the Russian dance with a Buffalo Bill's Cowboy Show. Although there really was a Buffalo Bill's Cowboy Show at the original Fair, making it historically accurate, the Trepak is one of the most iconic dances in the ballet- but really I just found the choreography to be unimpressive. I feel like they could have done more with Cowboy Bill than swinging a lasso, the saloon girls hardly did anything, and the dance lacked the energy of the Russian dance-but the rest of the audience loved that one. I also thought the choreography was poor for the Mother Ginger dance-which used to feature children doing tumbling and ballet, and is now child dancers in walnut costumes that frankly made me feel like I was watching a local dance studio's production of Nutcracker and not one of the top ballet companies in the country. Yet again, others disagreed-one reviewer called that dance the most hilarious part of the show.

So overall, it was an interesting look at the Nutcracker story and I enjoyed it. Still, for the traditionalists in our group, we kind of missed the ballet we knew and loved. Yet not everyone agreed with us-I overheard a woman afterwards saying she liked this better than the old ballet, and critics have given it great reviews. It will depend on what you're used to and expect when it comes to Nutcracker-some people may be itching for a new way to look at the story, but others of us love the nostalgia of recreating old traditions at Christmas-one of my favorite Christmas memories has just been replaced by a totally different ballet. Although I did like the concept, I don't know that I'll be dying to see this as often as I did the classic version (just as well, since it will be harder to get to it in future with a baby!). Speaking of which...one cool thing was that one of the party guests in the first act was "pregnant"-I think it's probably pretty rare to have a pregnant character in any ballet!

Although I really will miss my favorite element of the old ballet: one year, a child showed up to audition in a wheelchair, and so a character in a wheelchair was made part of the cast every year after that, participating naturally with the other boys in their party shenanigans. At the very end of the party scene, Drosselmeyer would give that child a magical "blessing" and it always made me tear up (I teach music to people with disabilities).

I don't know that I have a lot of local Chicagoland readers, but if anyone else has seen the new Nutcracker I'd love to hear what you think! Gypsy posted on it a few days ago, with several excerpts from other reviews, for more on what the experts have to say and not just my sentimental reaction ;).


  1. You're a member of the audience. You're entitled to have an opinion. Otherwise, it's what Anna Russell said about opera reviews - "by great experts, for the benefit of other great experts." Stuff the experts!

    It's always interesting to see what different companies do with this ballet. The Australian Ballet has a version called "Clara's Stoty" in which Clara is a Russian ballet dancer who has moved to Australia in her later years. One Christmas Eve, she has a party with her elderly friends and remembers her childhood and youth in Russia before and during the Revolution. The usual music was used but for very different scenes! So, if you think this version was different you should see Clara's Tale!

    1. That Australian ballet sounds really interesting! Of course, the Joffrey would be different for me if it were just another interpretation and not replacing the version I grew up with, which is also the best quality "classic" version you can see in the Chicago area. So it's a different experience for me than it will be for others

  2. I just love ballet... <3


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