Wheeldon’s New “Nutcracker” – Radical, Retooled and Untraditional

Reviewed By:Jim Schneider

The much anticipated, $4 million dollar world premiere of Joffrey Ballet’s revolutionary Nutcracker opened last night to much fanfare from the press and lukewarm applause from the audience. Creator Christopher Wheeldon feels that Joffrey Ballet “…needed a Nutcracker “that specifically belongs to the Joffrey Ballet – a version that accurately represents it’s dedication to unique repertoire and innovative works” (so what was Robert Joffrey’s 20 year + Nutcracker? Chopped Liver?).

Founder Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino’s Nutcracker was rich in the classic tradition and one Chicago has come to claim as its own holiday tradition. They stayed true to Tchaikovsky’s brilliant score and Marius Petipa’s choreography which was a key to its success. The Nutcracker was originally commissioned by the Russian Imperial Ballet, choreographed by Marius Petipa, and premiered in December of 1892 before the Czar and Czarina.

The story concerned a young girl, Clara (who becomes Marie in this production) who is given a Nutcracker by her strange Uncle Drossilmeyer (in this production he becomes The Great Impresario of the Fair) and she dreams of going to the Land of Sweets, ruled over by the Sugar Plum Fairy (in Wheeldon’s production the Land of Sweets is the Chicago World Columbian Exposition of 1893).

Wheeldon creates a stunning new production to pay homage to the city of Chicago which has been a big supporter of the company.  What I found most disappointing are the political overtones of politics infused into this production.

Marie (Clara) the daughter of an impoverished immigrant family who is working on the Exposition, living in a shack and sleeping on the floor instead of being from a wealthy, aristocratic family which makes much more sense to the original story. For his inspiration, Wheeldon draws from the book about the Exposition The Devil in The White City where he brings in “a new socio-economic plotline for Nutcracker”, focusing on the plight of the immigrant workers (haven’t we had enough politics this year!). It seems that all of the arts in Chicago need to make political statements instead of providing entertainment and escapism from the dark, ugly and dangerous times we live in.

As always the Joffrey corps of ballet dancers performed superbly. Fabrice Camels (The Great Impresario of The Fair) is at the height of his game, graceful and sublime. He has always been adept in telling the story through his body and emotion – he is a fine actor with extraordinary dance technique and remains a stalwart from the Joffrey Ballet before new Artistic Director Ashley Wheater.

As Marie, Cara Marie Gary is lovely, graceful and seems to float on air. Matthew Adamczyk is a delightful Rat Catcher and infuses the ballet with much humor. In the lead role of the Nutcracker Yoshihisa Arai defies gravity (although I wish Wheeldon would have given him more athletic showmanship choreography).

What I find to be problematic is the magnificent design and its execution which overshadowed the ballet, dancing and new choreography (many of the dancers seemed earthbound as a result of it). It is obvious to see where the $4 million dollars went in this breathtakingly beautiful production. Julian Crouch’s sets and costumes dazzle, Benjamin Pearcy’s Projection Design is magical, and Basil Twist’s Puppetry and Effects are wonderful (his rats are especially funny and so appropriate with the current rat infestation Chicago is experiencing).

However under all of the visual splendor and effects Wheeldon’s Nutcracker is on thin ice for those who will expect to see some semblance of the Nutcracker we have all come to love and celebrate each Christmas season.

Wheeldon and his team have not only rewritten the book but they have re-orchestrated the score which to such a point that much of Tchaikovsky’s lush score has been reduced and has a thin, tiny sound. Though extremely popular these days in the arts it is dangerously arrogant to “re-imagine” a great classical work to such an extent by making drastic changes to it in order to force it to fit your narrow vision of it, much like the ugly stepsister forcing her foot into the glass slipper in Cinderella; it just does not fit (an example being Buffalo Bill and his showgirls performing the famous Russian Candy Cane sequence. What were they thinking with that one???). San Francisco Ballet reimagined the same piece in 2006, having much more success with balancing the revolutionary with the classic and not tampering with the score and order of the dances (Wheeldon moves the Dance of The Sugar Plum Fairy to the opening of Act 2 with Lady Liberty performing it).

With what I consider a world-class Ballet company, I was surprised by Wheeldon’s choreography which I found pedestrian, boring and repetitive; rooted in a Martha Graham style of interpretive dance instead of classical ballet.

The second act, where the ballet dancers show the extent of their craft with gravity defying jumps and athleticism, is predominantly lifts and circles and with dancers paired off, performing their own specific choreography at different intervals from the others which creates a jerky, unpleasant frenetic feel. He also changed the final Pas de Deux, performed as a competition between Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier, into a Pas de Quatre, thereby muting the climax and leaving me disappointed.

I commend Ashley Wheater and Christopher Wheeldon for having the courage to take this daunting project on. I believe that if they infused some of Robert Joffrey back into their Nutcracker and retooled some of it to fit better to Tchaikovsky’s beautiful score this could be a magnificent new Nutcracker that would have stronger mass appeal, playing into what we have come to expect. In its present constricted form it will be interesting to see if this will ever replace the beloved Chicago Nutcracker tradition that Robert Joffrey created.   Traditions, like habits are hard to change and the Nutcracker is iconic and famous, steeped in Chicago tradition.

Performances at the Auditorium Theatre, Chicago

Tickets range from $35-$170 and are available for purchase at the Joffrey box office located in the Joffrey Tower, 10 E. Randolph Street as well as The Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University Box Office by phone 312.386.8905 or online at Joffrey.org.