The Joffrey's 'Nutcracker' fulfills every wish

December 9, 2013
Chicago Tribune
Laura Molzahn

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It's the season for indulgence—indulgence of others, of oneself, but most of all of children. And that's the engine that powers "The Nutcracker."

Chicago's most indulgent "Nutcracker," of course, belongs to the Joffrey Ballet. Set in 1850s America, it filters the hierarchical underpinnings of the Petipa/Ivanov 1892 original, intended to please the Csar, through the lens of American democracy. First performed in 1987, just months before Robert Joffrey's death, this staging was driven in part by memories of his own childhood and by his interest in Victorian-era toys, which he began collecting as a boy. Engaged for 23 performances at the Auditorium, through Dec. 28, the Joffrey's production has only picked up steam over its 26 years.

It's a juggernaut, packed with professional and child dancers alike. The Chicago Philharmonic, the Joffrey's official orchestra, plays Tchaikovsky's nuanced score with loving care, in tailor-made cadences. Plus, this production boasts the best special effects in town—in a ballet whose surreal scene transformations represent one major reason to see it. I'm always chilled and thrilled when the walls of the Stahlbaum home, whether modest or palatial, get blown away into the universe to reveal the huge Christmas tree outdoors, in the midst of a starry, snowy night. And the Joffrey's towering Mother Ginger, designed by Muppets puppeteer Kermit Love, is no staid matron; she's essentially another dancer, sweeping and swaying around the stage.

Kudos to the kids, directed by Joffrey children's ballet master Katie Kirwan. The young girls in the opening party scene pointed their feet and landed softly—the boys, perhaps less so, but their antics were just as winsome. The impossibly diminutive toys who appeared under the huge tree, each dressed and dancing differently, warmed the heart. And the Polichinelles slam-dunked their kick line, which requires angular twists not natural to anyone, and certainly not to ballet dancers.

Standouts among the Joffrey professionals included Christine Rocas and Temur Suluashvili, slivers of moonlight as the Snow Queen and King. As the Sugar Plum Fairy, April Daly revealed a queenly sureness and gentleness, her extensions soft and slow; she also whipped expertly through her fouettés and nailed the tossed, twirled fish dive. Dylan Gutierrez, her able partner, leapt high in his solo variation, generally landing in admirable silence.

The second-act divertissements of "The Nutcracker" are its grown-up indulgence—especially the Coffee, or Arabian, dance, whose sinuous moves release the ribcage and hips from classical ballet's usual rigid tethers to an upright spine. That's a holiday in itself, which Rocas and Rory Hohenstein celebrated in style.

When: Various days and times through Dec. 28

Where: Auditorium Theatre, 50 W. Congress Pkwy.

Running time: 2 hours

Tickets: $31-$132 at 800-982-2787 or ticketmaster.com