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After 28 years of holiday magic, a sparkling grand finale for the Joffrey Ballet’s “Nutcracker”

Sunday afternoon marked a poignant moment in the history of the Joffrey Ballet as the company “retired” its beloved version of Robert Joffrey’s “The Nutcracker” on the stage of the Auditorium Theatre. Before a capacity crowd of 3,900 people, the company gave a glittering performance – one filled with all the bravura dancing, and all the tearful nostalgia you might expect of such a grand farewell.

As artistic director Ashley Wheater reminded the audience during the emotional onstage gathering that followed the performance, this “Nutcracker” – created by Joffrey, with crucial sections of choreography contributed by Gerald Arpino –  has involved the talents of many hundreds of dancers, child performers, musicians and backstage staff over the years. It also has been seen by hundreds of thousands of people throughout the United States, often serving as their first exposure to the magic of ballet and the whole experience of live theater.

Sunday’s final performance had all the enthusiasm and excitement you might expect from a world premiere rather than a “warhorse.” The company – despite a grueling schedule of “Nutcrackers” in Washington, D.C. and then Chicago – was in sublime form. And this “last hurrah” suggested precisely why this incarnation of the ballet has been a “keeper” for almost three decades.

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The Joffrey’s artistic director, Ashley Wheater, reprised the role of Mayor Stahlbaum that he created in the ballet’s 1987 debut. Almost unrecognizable (and dancing with zest), he was the host of the opening scene’s lavish Christmas eve party which unfolds in a Victorian American townhouse. Another Joffrey alum, Michael Smith, returned to play a commanding Dr. Drosselmeyer, godfather to the Mayor’s children, Clara (the lovely Anastacia Holden) and her brother, Fritz (Derrick Agnoletti, who returned later in the evening as an effortlessly high-flying, gyroscopic-like Snow Prince and, along with Caitlin Meighan, half of the Tea from China duet).

April Daly was the elegant, beautifully cool Snow Queen, ideally partnered by her Snow King, Fabrice Calmels. The tour de force pairing of Victoria Jaiani as the Sugar Plum Fairy, and Temur Suluashvili as the very essence of the romantic Nutcracker Prince, was a model of pristine dancing, with Jaiani’s pirouettes and delicately lacy solo work absolutely exquisite.

Amber Neumann gave a fiery, full-force rendering of Chocolate from Spain. Rory Hohenstein and Christine Rocas were a sensual pairing in Coffee from Arabia. The Nougats from Russia (Jacqueline Moscicke, Yoshihisa Arai, Edson Barbosa and Elivelton Tomazi) had the audience clapping wildly. Amanda Assucena, Anna Gerberich and Holden were beguiling as the Marzipan Shepherdesses. And Francis Kane, puppeteer of the giant Mother Ginger for 28 years, worked his usual magic, and was singled out by Wheater in his post-show thank yous.

Arpino’s lush Waltz of the Flowers section showcased the depth of talent in the company, with Anais Bueno a standout among the eight swiftly moving women. The many children in this ballet (who do a great deal of dancing and acting, and were coached by Michael Smith and Suzanne Lopez, a veteran Joffrey dancer newly appointed as the company’s guest ballet master), were uniformly superb. And as always, Scott Speck led the formidable Chicago Philharmonic in an impeccable rendering of the Tchaikovsky score.

So, a fond wave goodbye to the maiden aunts and mechanical dolls, to the mice and tin soldiers, to the snowflakes and flowers, to the snowstorm and grand air balloon. TO be sure, Christopher Wheeldon has a hard act to follow with the debut of his new take on “The Nutcracker” which is to debut in December 2016, and will have Chicago’s Colombian Exposition of 1893 as its backdrop. But the Joffrey is more than ready to puts its indelible imprint on the next edition of this enduring holiday classic.