This was the frenzied pinnacle weekend for The Nutcracker throughout the land. Nuts were cracking open from the east coast to the left coast.
On Saturday night the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago presented the world premiere of Christopher Wheeldon’s The Nutcracker. Chicago's most handsome crowd was on hand and in a festive spirit. The city loves its Joffrey Ballet – and with good reason. The company continues to deliver high quality ballet and innovative works that dovetail with the city's own reputation for excellence in architecture, academics, culture, medicine, and quality of life. When Haglund brushed shoulders with Mayor Rahm Emanuel during intermission, it seemed like he was possibly lost in a reverie about “what could have been” if he had accepted the Joffrey’s scholarship offer back in the 1970s when he was a student at the Evanston School of Ballet. He probably realizes now that he could have inherited all of Gary Chryst’s greatest roles rather than spending so many years toiling as a public servant.
This new Nutcracker, which has replaced Robert Joffrey’s and Gerald Arpino’s production that the company danced for 20 years, is Chicago-centric. It is set during and in the months leading up to the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, aka the Columbian Exposition, which celebrated the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the New World. Chicago’s bid to be the location for the World’s Fair was created by the famous Chicago architect Daniel Burnham and beat out New York’s, St. Louis' and Philadelphia’s bids. Design and construction were mammoth undertakings by the city’s most brilliant and accomplished architectural, engineering, and construction firms. Chicago, after all, had already built the world's first skyscraper with its revolutionary steel frame, and the city’s movers and shakers were convinced that the sky was their limit. At the time, Chicago was a city whose one million inhabitants included more immigrants than American-born residents, and it was mostly these immigrants and unemployed students – 25,000 in all – who ended up building the World’s Fair. This new Nutcracker offers a hearty nod to their accomplishments in addition to more than a few parallels.
Choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon, an immigrant, for the Joffrey Ballet which is led by Ashley Wheater, an immigrant, this Nutcracker is danced by a company comprised of more than 50% immigrants from all parts of the world. And yet, when watching the company at the world premiere on Saturday night, Haglund could not help but notice how these dancers who never saw a performance of the Joffrey Ballet under Robert Joffrey’s direction possessed the unmistakable drive, energy, focus, and physical diversity of the company that Haglund first encountered in the 1960s. Goodman, Singleton, Zomosa, Fuente, Holder, Burke, Danias, Blankshine – all such unique artists who Robert Joffrey (the American born son of immigrant parents – Italian mother and Afghan father) along with Gerald Arpino (of Staten Island) molded into a company that truly broke new ground on the ballet stage.
Wheeldon’s Nutcracker eschews the sugary affluent home life that many other productions successfully and beautifully portray in favor of a portrait of a struggling immigrant single mother (Victoria Jaiani), a sculptress by trade, who is bringing up her daughter, Marie (Amanda Assucena), in a shack within a neighborhood overrun by (lifelike but also adorable) rats. The mother sculpts the golden statue that would become emblematic of the Chicago World’s Fair. In Marie’s dream, her mother becomes the living statue who dances to the music that we customarily associate with the Sugarplum Fairy and the Grand Pas de Deux. Marie also dreams about the many World’s Fair Pavilions that were being constructed, and in this ballet serve to stage performances by Spanish dancers, Arabian dancers, Chinese dancers, Venetian masked dancers, an oversized Mother Nutcracker on stilts, and unique to this production, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Buffalo Bill never actually made it inside the World’s Fair but set up his own little show outside the fairgrounds. Wheeldon invited him inside.
Act I showed the Workers at the Fair as opposed to the traditional well-heeled party guests. A small “Charlie Brown” type Christmas tree was delivered to Marie’s house and was joyously decorated by the family. When Marie and her brother retired for the night on the floor, her dream began. The tree grew to an immense height through a combination of stagecraft and cinemacraft. The soldiers and the rats clashed ferociously. Swords swung, teeth bared, and a cavalry arrived on horseback. At the premiere performance one of the horses suddenly suffered what appeared to be four broken legs at one time downstage in the center of all the action. While the rider struggled valiantly to get his horse back up on its “feet”, the battle action continued around him. He simply could not get that horse up and moving again. The little soldier pleaded in the direction of the dark stage wing. Suddenly a group of rats and soldiers appeared and pulled him and his horse off the stage and into the wing. But this took so long that we began wondering if it was part of Marie’s nightmare and whether we should prepare ourselves for the customary/horrific end for any horse who suffers a broken leg. Let us mention that these were not the first broken bones associated with this production which we’ll elaborate on later.
The Snow Scene included Snowflakes, Snow Soloists, and Ice Cavaliers. Wheeldon’s corps configurations were as complex as stellar dendrites and sectored plates of crystals and ice ridges. Sometimes the dancers arms whirled straight outward as tree-like branch forms that really do make up snowflakes. While we have seen these ultra-straight arms in Wheeldon’s choreography before, this was the first time they made perfect sense. While the Snow Scene patterns were interesting and the dancing was very energetic, it seemed at times more highly organized than magical.
Victoria Jaiani as Marie’s mother and The Queen of the Fair (aka the golden statue) conveyed regal beauty and authority in every step. However, her costume included a long gold skirt of heavy material that was reminiscent of the dowdy skirts that Martha Graham was fond of using in her choreography. True, the costume very closely resembled the skirt worn by the actual golden statue, but it also lent an awkwardness to the dancing, especially in the Act II pas de deux which was so superbly performed by Jaiani and Miguel Angel Blanco, the Great Impresario of the Fair, against a backdrop of a turning Ferris Wheel – an invention specifically for the Chicago World’s Fair. At least for the PdD, Wheeldon could have altered the skirt to medium length golden/bronze tulle. Since this was all part of Marie’s dream about her adored mother, we imagine that a less drab styling would have been welcome. The choreography was skillfully assembled but it was not as musically sensitive as we expected.
Throughout the choreography there was a reluctance to exploit, engage, or even recognize Tchaikovsky’s glorious musical climaxes. When the music swelled to its most beautiful, the dancers sometimes were simply walking to the next position or standing still. It didn’t work the way it worked in An American in Paris, Wheeldon’s Tony Award-winning Broadway musical.
Sometimes there is a tendency for professional dancers to mock and make fun of grand musical climaxes among themselves – not in performances, but in rehearsals or in the casual environment. We’re not making a specific reference to the Joffrey Ballet which has a highly respected reputation for serious discipline at all times, but rather to what we have observed in New York’s own companies where Wheeldon cut his choreographic chops. The gigantic lift, the overly-sensational ending to a pirouette are ripe for ridicule and faux cheers among dancers themselves. The choreographer has to let go of and ignore that behavior when creating dances. In Wheeldon’s works, we see a definite trend toward cerebral, less emotional dance texts that use the music but don’t reveal it. The Nutcracker includes some of Tchaikovsky’s most stunningly beautiful music, but in this case, the choreography seemingly did not try to rise to its level. The musical climaxes were mostly ignored or treated like a period at the end of a sentence.
The unlikely choreographic highlight of this Nutcracker was the Arabian duo of Christine Rocas and Fabrice Calmels who have been dancing with the Joffrey for 10 and 15 years, respectively. Their choreography included the slow, delicate entwining of limbs that Wheeldon has perfected, but it was made spectacular by the sheer size of Calmels and the incredible beauty of both dancers. Their entrance was magnificent. Perched on one knee atop Calmels’ massive shoulder with the other leg extended in arabesque, Rocas reached close to 11 feet up in the air as she was carried out of the wing and along the back of the stage. For Calmels this was no flashy trick, however. He was the epitome of the exotic, mysterious, devastatingly handsome character out of One Thousand and One Nights who worshipped this beautiful woman with every step. It was possibly the most sultry, steamy, on the verge of combustion Arabian Nutcracker dance that Haglund has ever seen. Just look at the expression on this woman’s face:
Photo by Cheryl Mann (former Hubbard Street dancer)
The Spanish Dancers – (actually one Mexican - Anais Bueno; one American - April Daly; one Japanese - Yoshihisa Arai; and one Georgian - Temur Suluashvili) – dispensed their choreography with suitable Spanish flair. Dylan Gutierrez as Buffalo Bill shot around the stage with wild grand allegro, trick roping, and finished by pulling his pistols out their holsters.
Hopefully, the choreography for the Chinese Dancer, Fernando Duarte, will be totally re-thought by Wheeldon. It looked like he intentionally tried to invoke stereotypes rather than revealing a culture.
Marie, Amanda Assucena, and The Nutcracker, Alberto Velazquez, were both immensely likable in their roles and danced superbly.
Perhaps the cutest use of the children’s cast was the group of skinny-legged walnut-heads that appeared toward the end. On cue, their walnut heads opened up and the kids turned and tilted their heads in Shirley Temple Bright Eyes style.
The end of the ballet was anti-climatic, to put it mildly. Marie awoke to observe her mother and the Great Impresario falling in love at the kitchen table. It made her very happy, but in no way represented the great Tchaikovsky music.
There is much to admire in this new Nutcracker, but there is much to revise as well. The Nutcracker story within the concept of the Chicago World’s Fair is a story worth telling – a story worth shouting. But once the fantastical puppetry and effects created by Basil Twist and the wonderfully creative lighting by Natasha Katz are stripped away, we are left with choreography that does not yet measure up to that which it is supposed to replace.
But much applause goes to the creative team and to the Joffrey Ballet for pulling together this ambitious new Nutcracker. As you can see from this brief video, the Chicago audience warmly appreciated the effort. (That's our choreographer on crutches.)
We certainly do have an H.H. Pump Bump Award to bestow upon Christine Rocas and Fabrice Calmels for their mysterious, magnificent, sleek and very sensual performances in the Arabian pas de deux: