Originally published in Chicago Tribune
By Chris Jones
Especially when we’re very young, we may travel far in our dreams. Perchance through a world revolving around our hopes and fears. Maybe to a place where a Christmas tree can pierce our hearts, and then burst through the walls of a poor young girl’s gray wooden shack in a rough city on the edge of a prairie, where rats scurry, snow flies, toys break and a frigid winter wind cracks the most determined nut. Alas, time always is painfully short in the holiday rituals we explore together every year. Chimes toll. Morning always dawns. Shadows have places to go. Curtains fall.
We pray that those we love will be back next year. We always have to wake up at home.
You might be surprised to learn that home — sweet home Chicago, you might say — is the dominant theme of Christopher Wheeldon’s “The Nutcracker,” the extraordinarily rich, beautiful and emotionally potent new civic contribution from a choreographer who is, in no small part, a populist determined to increase the audience for ballet not so much by transforming, or even augmenting, its narrative capabilities, but revealing them to those who have not been looking, or those willing to look only once a year. For the sake of the kids.
For while one might see “The Nutcracker” as a stultifying manifestation of the stagnation of traditional balletic expectation and thus expression, Wheeldon, his collaborators from Broadway and the emotionally re-ignited dancers of the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago, clearly see it as a singularly cool and viable opportunity for total transformation.
The power of this all-new work — and make no mistake, it reaches far inside you without any recourse to conventional sentimentality — is in its dominant metaphor, the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, as fleshed out in a new story, a wordless but palpable book by Brian Selznick, who also penned “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” with which this new work shares both an emotional vocabulary and an unstinting choreographic dedication to the narrative psychology of a child. No designer working today is as dedicated to point of view as Julian Crouch, whose sets really are dreamscapes. As lit by Natasha Katz and combined with magic by Basil Twist, they pulse with childlike point of view.
A moon here. A puff of smoke there. All baked in to what you are watching. The combination of Crouch’s temporal sense of place and the unflinching trajectory of a Joffrey dancer, her body cutting across space and melding with exteriors that feel like extensions of her corporal communication, is a formidable artistic weapon. In its best and truest moments, it’s not unlike watching dancers dancing within their own hearts.
But although this Clara, or here this Marie, travels far in her mind from the cold, rude reality of her Chicago, where a poor girl can only press her face against the glass of privilege, she’s really only dancing across a few blocks to a homegrown event that not only put Chicago on the global map, but that citizens of all economic stripes could, and did, enjoy together. In other words then, this is not only a “Nutcracker” set in Chicago, and that belongs to Chicago, but also an aspirational evocation of what a city actually can achieve, did once achieve, when working together and throwing open the gates for all. It contains a lesson for its children. It’s surely no accident that one of the only words of text we see on the stage is a prescient headline from the news of 1892 — “Additional Migrant Workers to Complete Project.”
Of course, “The Nutcracker” comes tied to winter as surely as to the music of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky — indeed, snow was falling during Saturday night’s opening at the Auditorium Theatre, the bite of the wind reminding us that in Chicago, we dream also of summer. A lot. The Columbian Exposition was a child of the summer, of course. But Selznick, Wheeldon and Crouch solve that problem by setting Act 1 five months prior to their fair’s opening, allowing for the presence of the Christmas tree, imagined by Crouch with such force that it seems to bust with verdantly rebellious determination through the gilded walls of this theater.
Just by taking the steady and risk-taking arm of The Great Impresario (Miguel Angel Blanco), the voyaging Marie and her Prince, Amanda Assucena and Alberto Velazquez, can travel to an Epcot-like place, although an avowedly un-Disneyfied time, that easily accommodates the traditional suite of globally influenced tours de force that make up Act 2 of the “Nutcracker.” This couple — both protagonists and surrogate audience members — need only travel from one pavilion to another to find Buffalo Bill (Dylan Gutierrez) twirling and galloping and galloping with the precision of a sharp-shooter, or Arabian dancers (Christine Rocas and Fabrice Calmels) merging for a young girl’s amazement, or a Chinese dancer (Fernando Duarte) leading a great dragon, or dancers of the Venetian mask, or even a figure shrewdly extrapolated from British pantomime, a chortling dame in the person of Matt Roben, a mother of the Nutcracker.
In many of these sequences, Wheeldon places the inspiration for his choreography — say, the Ferris wheel — right behind the dancers. This is both an act of inspired accessibility and an educational imperative, tacitly acknowledging the crucial place of this title in how a young person comes to understand and love the ballet and its vocabulary. Thus you can see the fair visitors, the dancers of the Joffrey, probing not only the spatial dynamics of the wheel, but the emotional trajectory of a spin thereupon, where you can see everything you already have seen from a new vista, it being made both strange and wonderful before your eyes.
This is most striking when you watch Victoria Jaiani, the Queen of the Fair, either alone or alongside the life-force of her impresario, performing, quite astonishingly, what you might think of as a ballet of fixed point, a statuesque exploration of what it means for a statue to come to life — and, also, what a young girl thinks when she stares at a statue that might well be the mother of all she ever has seen. Jaiani, and Blanco, show us all of that, and Assucena receives and expands their beauty.
Mothers are a big part of this story, actually. For the Queen of the Fair also is Marie’s real-life mother, a sculptress, who, in that wooden room in Act 1, actually is forging what turns out to be her own maternal dominium, in the mind of her loving daughter, at least. Together, Wheeldon and Jaiani construct and embody a mother’s love in such an extraordinarily aspirational fashion that it feels much like a reference to the role mothers play in every community Nutcracker across America, sacrificing their Decembers and bringing their children to play (in this show alone) soldiers, nutcrackers, junior snowflakes, walnuts, cavalry, ragamuffins, rats, worker girls, waves, dragons and baby snow. No Nutcracker could exist without willing parents, as Marie comes to see.
As this show settles for what will surely be a long and beloved annual engagement, accompanied by Chicagoans telling their visitors they’ve never seen this “Nutcracker,” Wheeldon will, I suspect, be able to deepen everything on his canvas. He may well want to work with Assucena, whose excitement electrifies both her body and this show, on the notion that not everything wondrous that we see brings us joy, but can evoke the darker moments of life. Dreams can be the end of innocence, a theme Wheeldon puts firmly in play here and that can go much further. There is also something not quite right about the final sequence at the World’s Fair — the climactic moment feels suddenly hurried and inorganic. It does not yet fully satisfy the emotional trajectory; this will be easier once Marie’s journey increases in darkness and complexity and Velazquez gains yet more agency and point of view.
In the final moments of this show, Marie returns home. A home that her dream has changed. Maybe. It’s hard to know how long such a change will last.
We also come to see, in a further masterstroke, that we’ve all come back to the Auditorium, a standing legacy of this balletic World’s Fair that blazes brightly in this show as the home of an exceptional Chicago composition that surely will travel far and wide, and might just help resurrect our history of audacious innovation, this clearly being an artistic endeavor to patch the bullet holes in a great civic canvas.
We can only dream like Marie.