Joffrey Ballet "The Nutcracker"

December 14, 2010
REVIEW by See Chicago Dance
Laura Molzahn


The Joffrey’s “Nutcracker" is the 800-lb. gorilla of Chicago dance. Last year alone it drew nearly 33,000 people to the Auditorium. How many must there have been over the years? And who are they?

Probably they can be broken down into three categories: children, the ticket-buying adults who shepherd the kids, and die-hard dance fans. Each audience is looking for something different from this chestnut, so I’ll address them separately.

The Joffrey’s “Nutcracker,” which Robert Joffrey set in America in the 1850s, begins with a bang. The opening scene, a Christmas party in a Victorian parlor, features an avalanche of toys, presents, fancy candy-colored costumes, and kid-friendly shenanigans. Clara, our heroine, is preoccupied with dolls and, maybe, boys. High-spirited hooligan Fritz, her brother, breaks the nutcracker given to Clara by the forbidding, magical Drosselmeyer.

Later scenes take Clara to an epic battle between giant mice and toys in her parlor; to an enchanted forest blanketed by snow; and to the Kingdom of Sweets, where she’s seated on a throne and entertained by dances from around the world, a dance by flowers, and a pas de deux by the Sugar Plum Fairy and Nutcracker Prince.

What child would object to this fantasy fulfilled? The fantasy of Christmas, in which parental love and prosperity are infinite and lavished on their children. The Joffrey’s production makes it all vividly real.

If you can afford the tickets (which range from $30 to $115), the Joffrey’s “Nutcracker” does deliver. First off, you’ve got the Auditorium Theatre itself, completed in 1889 and loaded with the charm of the Gilded Age. You’ve got a live orchestra, the Chicago Sinfonietta, playing Tchaikovsky’s familiar music. You can even take your child at intermission to peer into the orchestra pit --- a huge draw on opening night.

The production values are impeccable. The costumes and sets are gorgeous throughout, but especially in the first scene. The snow falls endlessly, and the flower petals are limitless.

And the Joffrey dancers are top-of-the-line. Even the children onstage are the best that Chicagoland ballet studios have to offer.

That would be me, more or less.

There’s no question that the Joffrey dancers do a magnificent job with the acting and choreography. On opening night, Anastacia Holden was a wonderfully soft, innocent Clara, with a smile in the second act that shone brightly on every performance and every single child/Polichinelle who sat at her feet. As the Snow Queen and King, Victoria Jaiani and Fabrice Calmels recapitulated the technical brilliance of their smashing duet in Christopher Wheeldon’s “After the Rain,” which they performed in October. Yumelia Garcia was a tough little wind-up doll as the Sugar Plum Fairy, and Mauro Villanueva a slender, tensile foil for her in the final grand pas.

But the high point of the dancing for me, always, is the Arabian coffee duet, sinuously performed on opening night by Jaiani and the sturdy, attentive Miguel Angel Blanco. A little dance sizzle never hurts, and all the muscular departures from traditional ballet in the second act’s Divertissements are truly diverting. The Russian quartet in particular was a hit.

And, on a final, Scrooge-like note, I have to say that “The Nutcracker” is not my favorite story ballet. It’s no accident that it became hugely popular here in the 1950s, that era of burgeoning U.S. prosperity. In 1987, Joffrey changed the setting from a German household to a bourgeois parlor in America --- but that parlor is infused with the same sense of privilege and magically unlimited resources as the second act’s Kingdom of Sweets. To me, this “Nutcracker” in particular is a consumerist work of, by, and for the wealthy.