Joffrey Ballet’s new ‘Nutcracker’ a gift of astonishments

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Victoria Jaiani and Miguel Angel Blanco in the world premiere Joffrey Ballet production of Christopher Wheeldon’s “The Nutcracker” at the Auditorium Theatre. (Photo: Cheryl Mann)

To give just the smallest hint of what the Joffrey Ballet’s astonishing world premiere production of choreographer Christopher Wheeldon’s game-changing version of “The Nutcracker” manages to do, it might be best to describe one scene in the work that opened Saturday night at the Auditorium Theatre — just as Mother Nature added her own special effects by way of the season’s first snowstorm.

The Joffrey Ballet in ‘The Nutcracker’ Highly recommended When:Through Dec. 30 Where: Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress Tickets: $35 – $170 Info: Running time: 2 hours and 10 minutes, with one intermission

The ballet, with a wonderfully re-imagined story line by Brian Selznick, unfolds on the Christmas Eve about five months prior to the May 1893 opening of the Columbian Exposition in Chicago — the monumental World’s Fair that heralded the arrival of this city as a major center of architecture, technology and world culture. Construction of the fair is still underway as a holiday party begins in the rustic workshop of the female sculptor — a Polish immigrant, and single mother of a teenage girl, Marie, and her younger brother, Franz — who is crafting the Expo’s emblematic Columbia sculpture, a gilded bronze figure holding aloft a globe and a plaque reading “Liberty.”

Making a surprise visit to the party is The Great Impresario, a Daniel Burnham-like figure in a cape and top hat, who gathers on a table all the objects “lifted” by the street urchins whose parents also work on the Fair ground. Soon, as a muslin curtain is drawn in front of the table, a shadow play gets underway, and all these random objects coalesce into a model of the fairgrounds, complete with the world’s first Ferris Wheel. Pure magic.

And there is far more to come, for Wheeldon (acclaimed as director and choreographer of the Broadway hit, “An American in Paris”), is a man of the theater as well as of the ballet, and he knows how to make every element of the stage “dance” in the service of storytelling.

Amanda Assucena is Marie, and Alberto Velazquez is Prince Peter, in the Joffrey Ballet production of Christopher Wheeldon’s “The Nutcracker.” (Photo: Cheryl Mann)

Amanda Assucena is Marie, and Alberto Velazquez is Prince Peter, in the Joffrey Ballet production of Christopher Wheeldon’s “The Nutcracker.” (Photo: Cheryl Mann)

The Impresario (Miguel Angel Blanco), clearly is attracted to the sculptress (Victoria Jaiani), but he also showers his attention on Marie (Amanda Assucena), the artist’s daughter, whose gift is a Nutcracker Prince she adores. (A slew of cracked walnuts, played by student dancers, appears later, in the ballet’s most hilarious scene.) But it is Marie’s Christmas Eve dream that sets the story in motion, beginning as a pathetic little evergreen morphs into a stage —enveloping Christmas tree. Soon, a war erupts between the suddenly handsome young life-sized Nutcracker, Prince Peter (Alberto Velazquez), and the nasty Rat King (a scurrilous Rory Hohenstein), and his army of mice (whose presence make perfect sense now, given this is a construction site).


Crafting a new ‘Nutcracker’ for the Joffrey

Before the first act is over, there also is a great, silvery snowstorm, and then Marie sails onto the Fair’s lagoon on a giant white stone gondola, along with the Prince and Impresario. By the second act they are surrounded by posh visitors to the Fair, and are treated to the elaborate performances of dancers from the many international pavilions. The love affairs between The Impresario and Mother, and Marie and the Prince, are captured in lavish pas de deux.

Wheeldon possesses a gift for subtly blending the vocabulary of ballet with something more modern and acrobatic, without ever distorting the classical core. And he has used Tchaikovsky’s score to notably clever effect, as when, in the first act, the partygoers (accompanied by a trio of fine onstage musicians), join in folk dances whose rhythms are in the Russian composer’s music. Or when, later, eight couples portraying Fair Visitors dance to the Waltz of the Flowers — their circular motion echoing the spinning of the Ferris Wheel.

The Joffrey dancers (with five rotating casts for the work’s 27 performances) were ideally “cast” for the opening, with Blanco a compelling, easily charismatic Impresario, expertly partnering Jaiani, whose transformation into a living embodiment of the Columbia statue is breathtaking. Jaiani’s lightness, lyricism, singularly beautiful arms and overall elegance of line are unique. And as Marie, Assucena — a brilliantly effortless technician who brings a quality of joy and naturalness to every move — possesses an irresistible freshness and spontaneity, with Velazquez as her charming suitor.

Also eliciting showstopping cheers were the Arabian Dancers, with the petite, exquisitely beautiful Christine Rocas partnered by the towering Fabrice Calmels in a pas de deux that set the stage on fire with its snaky sensuality. And garnering well-deserved laughs was Dylan Gutierrez as a bearded, lasso-twirling Buffalo Bill who brought his Wild West Show to the Fair. The Spanish Dancers are now a quartet (rather than the traditional solo), the Chinese Dancer is accompanied by two giant orange dragon puppets, the Shepherdesses are now a trio of Venetian masked ladies, and Mother Nutcracker — well, that must remain a secret.

Stunningly integrated throughout are Julian Crouch’s magnificent sets (including one that extends the gilded arches of the Auditorium Theatre onto the stage), costumes and masks; the ever-ingenious projection work of Benjamin Pearcy (whose superb work also animated “An American in Paris”); Natasha Katz’s ever-masterful lighting, and Basil Twist’s whimsical puppetry. And as always, the Chicago Philharmonic Orchestra, led by conductor Scott Speck, was impeccable.

Wheeldon (who broke his ankle during the ballet’s tryouts at Iowa’s Hancher Center last week), clapped for the cast with his crutches lifted in mid air, and was joined by Speck, the creative team, and the Joffrey’s artistic director, Ashley Wheater, for bows. This production was dedicated to Wheater, who has transformed the company since taking the helm in 2007. The evidence was everywhere on Saturday as this extraordinarily ambitious and complex production demonstrated the highest level of artistry and inspired immense joy, and as one golden moment in Chicago history lit the path for another.

The Columbian World’s Exposition of 1893, held in Chicago, is the backdrop for the Joffrey Ballet’s new production of “The Nutcracker.” (Photo: Cheryl Mann)

The Columbian World’s Exposition of 1893, held in Chicago, is the backdrop for the Joffrey Ballet’s new production of “The Nutcracker.” (Photo: Cheryl Mann)

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