Joffrey’s Nutcracker has a new home

Year after year the reviewer comes, this nasty aunt who wasn’t quite a guest in the house spoiling Christmas for the kids by pointing out that Nutcracker is, like most American traditions, not as old and established as it claims and problematic when it comes to gender and race to boot. This year, one year after The Year Without The Nutcracker, five years after the premiere of this $ 4 million production, my third year watching (and reviewing) this production, and her first year in the new house. by Joffrey at the Lyric Opera House, let’s see if this Carabosse can pull a Drosselmeyer and deliver an unsolicited gift that might help this ballet mature – or at least imagine it.

Dancers from across America don their pointes for the story of a teenage girl coming of age on a magical journey through the Candy Kingdom accompanied by a Nutcracker Prince. Joffrey’s town-specific production, choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon with a libretto by Brian Selznick in 2016, places the ballet on Christmas Eve before the Colombian Exposition of 1893. The choice to refer to the first Chicago World‘s Fair, named after the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Christopher Columbus on these shores, is perhaps a little too relevant as regards the second act, which doubles as a safari through the cultures of the “world”, some of which are celebrated and others are presented as caricatures and curiosities.

It is also chronologically accurate: the original production of Nutcracker (composed by Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky and choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, with a libretto adapted from a story by ETA Hoffmann) premiered – to critical derision – in 1892. Sometimes relaunched in Europe and the United Kingdom, the ballet eventually gained the status of a cultural institution in 1950s America, assisted by the use of Tchaikovsky’s suite in Disney’s Fancy in 1940, with nostalgic productions of the San Francisco Ballet (1944) and the New York City Ballet (1954). Today, that remnant of pre-civil rights is Black Friday in the form of a ballet, bringing families together to generate nearly half of the year’s income in classical dance.

In many productions of the Nutcracker, the party scene is the necessary exposure before the “real” dance begins in act two’s entertainment buffet. However, in Joffrey’s staging, the sweetness of the first act is due to its uniqueness of place and character – in other words, you could say that the Exhibition is everything.

Until 12/26 /: Wed-Fri 7 p.m., Sat 2 p.m. and 7 p.m., Sun 1 p.m. and 6 p.m. also Tue 12/21/14 and 7:00 p.m., Wed-Thu 12/22 and 12/23/14, 2:00 p.m. Fri 12/24, 2 p.m. only; no performances Wed 12/8 or Sat 12/25; Lyric Opera House, 20 N. Wacker, 312-386-8905,, $ 35- $ 199.

When the curtain rises on Joffrey’s production, we are not in the opulent home of the German bourgeois family in Hoffmann’s story. Instead, we’re on a construction site for the World’s Fair, filled with laborers, rats, and sooty-faced children (in the lavish setting of our opera jewelry box), which is argue and tease each other before humbly going to the huge cabin where the brothers and sisters Marie and Franz and their mother live. Around a twig of a Christmas tree, a community of holiday celebrants come together to dance and party. At their party we hear a musical arrangement by Ljova for violin, accordion and clarinet – in previous years a seemingly fragile substitute for Tchaikovsky’s famous lush score.

However, this year the musicians are placed at the bottom of the stage in period costume rather than hidden in the pit, becoming additional characters in the story rather than a background or commentary on the action. This directing decision parallels the essence of the scene that occurs when the Grand Impresario of the Fair arrives with a flourish from his cape, carrying a cart full of ordinary odds and ends. The revelers are disoriented until the wizard shows the hand: the trinkets are the pieces of a puzzle, which, put together, create a lively spectacle of magic lanterns from the upcoming fun fair. Although narratively, he is there to give the Nutcracker to Marie (and incidentally to her apprentice Peter), witnessing the mechanics of such practical magic offers the most beautiful message of the evening – that the simplest of instruments can. be transformed into history by the magic of the theater.

Hyuma Kiyosawa and Yumi Kanazawa in the Joffrey Ballet Nutcracker Credit: Todd Rosenberg

As for the other dances, Wheeldon seems to have been careful to deviate from the choreographic choices of his predecessors, producing static snow, bland and marzipan Spanish variations (here Venetian), and a grand pas de deux awkward gymnastics (simply because technique allows someone to be pulled into a dive by somersaulting their partner’s back does not mean it has to be done). However, he unfortunately did not deviate from the colonialist cultural choices that his predecessors made: a condescending and culturally inaccurate Chinese variation (played at the opening in yellow face) and an Arabic variation featuring an almost naked and hyperflexible woman. who gets roughed up on stage because cultural taboos are OK as long as they’re exotic.

We are in 2021: why repeat the hypothesis that everything is beautiful in ballet? Here is a proposal: why not bring on stage Chicagoans who practice these forms to share their culture? Why continue to deny everyone the opportunity to opt out and learn? (Still, lest we think misogyny is just an alien concept, the Russian variant here is American Buffalo Bill shaking his lasso around some Vegas-esque showgirls – there’s probably a conspiracy theory here somewhere. go.)

Those who come for the frightening psychosexual dynamic of the ballet will be satisfied. The Grand Impresario first makes his presence known to Mary by patting her from behind with his stick. The Standing Wood Nutcracker first appears as an unidentifiable protuberance under a velvet fabric, to the excitement of the boys on stage, but ultimately it’s not a gift to them (at least in this tale). Little brother Franz receives a fright when his hand is thrust into the Rat Catcher’s cavernous sac, which is presumably lined with biting rodent teeth. The dream scene is preceded by the budding growth of the Christmas tree. Marie is hypnotized by the dangerous and mysterious Grand Impresario, a fantasy that he will meet up with his mother, but also fantasizes that she is his mother. it’s called Nutcracker, friends, do I have to say more?

In terms of performance, the dancers of Joffrey are irreproachable. At the opening, Yumi Kanazawa as Marie and Hyuma Kiyosawa as Peter were a delightful vision of youth and enthusiasm. The snow body leaned into the camp of their stage, taking a page from Mark Morris’s book while lifting handfuls of snow in front of the jazz’s hands and Saturday night feveresque-pointing takes over the choreography (maybe add some glitter and a disco ball next year?). Fernando Duarte and Xavier Núñez started an excellent duo as teenagers on the party scene. This duo would be just as excellent without the cowboy and Indian costumes, but I digress.

A special guest at the party is a girl in a wheelchair, a Christmas tradition at least as old as Tiny Tim. But while Tiny Tim has his part in A Christmas Carol, this figure doesn’t seem to have a role beyond being black and in a wheelchair – in other words, she visually has to do a lot of work for anyone who isn’t usually on stage at the ballet. In terms of performance, it is important that she can be the guest of this party, however, during the dances she is nowhere to be found.

The problem of representation extends more generally to the casting, and finally to the content of this work. Seeing a ballet cast such that people of color are not only incorporated, but the leading roles in the dance are undoubtedly worth celebrating. However, if the content and the choreography further reinforce segregation, sexism and racial stereotypes, their presence within the work recreates them in the image of their oppressors (that this is now called the Hamilton Complex). Mere inclusion is therefore not enough: as anyone who has ever watched a ballet will know, although the majority of people on stage are women, ballet has not yet become a feminist. So there is still work to be done – and it has to be done in terms of the staging, the choreography and the concept.

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