The Joffrey Ballet continues performances of its new Nutcracker by choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, into a fourth year since its inception in 2016. Chicago is fortunate to have a version of the famous Russian ballet based on local historical events and sites. The production is beautiful with a new story by children’s author Brian Selznick, puppets by Basil Twist, set and costumes by Julian Crouch, and high tech computerized effects by 59 Productions. This is a world class team, treating a world changing event – the World Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago’s legendary ‘White City’ built by Daniel Burnham, one of Chicago’s architectural fathers.

The Joffrey Ballet <i>Nutcracker</i> © Cheryl Mann
The Joffrey Ballet Nutcracker
© Cheryl Mann

It is a pity that this all adds up to a solid reading of a new story with no memorable choreography or characteristic dances. There were two bits of excellent dancing: the pas de deux by the Arabian Dancers, performed by Victoria Jaiani and Temur Suluashvili, and the final pas de deux by the immigrant Mother/ Queen of the Fair with The Great Impresario of the Fair/ new husband to the widowed mother, danced by Jeraldine Mendoza and Dylan Gutierrez. The dancing in both was energized, performed with crisp articulation and assured partnering. These two duets also highlighted how the rest of the dancing was lackluster; how perfunctory the choreography.

There are gaping holes in the storytelling. An immigrant widow of indiscernible heritage, who is a worker at the fair, living in a worker’s hut, is somehow entrusted to design the main golden figure welcoming guests, the Statue of the Republic. This makes no sense. In Act 2, the dream, the widowed mother is suddenly the statue come to life, the Queen of the Fair. She dances with the Impresario of the Fair, who also gave gifts to all the workers in the hut, including a nutcracker for daughter Marie.

It is a modern act to endeavor to bring “a new socio-economic framework” for The Nutcracker. It comes with modern biases that are not aging well. We live in an era where it is no longer considered appropriate for white dancers to portray, for example, Chinese people, using outworn stereotypes like pointing fingers, and kowtowing at every turn. Is it any better to favor what is merely color-blind?

The Joffrey Ballet <i>Nutcracker</i> © Cheryl Mann
The Joffrey Ballet Nutcracker
© Cheryl Mann

The performance I attended had a Latina playing an “immigrant widow” worker in the months leading the Fair. Her daughter was Caucasian, and her Prince, Asian. This is not ‘woke’; it is woke-washing. There were real immigrants building the White City. Their race and ethnicity does not matter? Who is respected in this decision? Humanity at the expense of every distinct ethnic group?

The result is neither a telling of The Nutcracker, nor the telling of the building of the White City for the 1893 Fair. What we see is a reflection of contemporary mores: no one is offended, no one is really represented either. The performance becomes a fable by a children’s author, not an accurate portrayal of the Fair, which was a panorama of the exotic. Dancers came from all over the world for this Fair, each striving to be seen and remembered as distinct.

It is one thing to re-stage a ballet, and take the transformation of its socio-economic message as a goal. It is another to choreograph memorable and distinct choreography, of which there is virtually none. This matters because the point of The Nutcracker is a child’s dream, a fantasy, where characters appear, one after another, marvelous and surprising, exotic and entertaining. In Wheeldon’s hands, the Russian Cossacks become Buffalo Bill and three ballerina-cowgirls – a bit of a whitewash of the Wild West Show, and Buffalo Bill reduced to a yee-haw.

The Joffrey Ballet <i>Nutcracker</i> © Cheryl Mann
The Joffrey Ballet Nutcracker
© Cheryl Mann

The dances we remember from our youth – Waltz of the Snowflakes, Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, the procession of ethnic dancers in characteristic dances, becomes just a series of convoluted dances in expensive costumes with no distinction. Oddly the Chinese dancer with his two dragon puppets, used chopstick fingers and kowtowing. The Arabs were consumed by their own eroticism, legs flying wide again and again. The whole enterprise of a choreographer from The Royal Ballet imagining immigrant past times on the Great Lakes in the 19th century, is skewed and unrealistic on its own terms.

The ballet achieves its goal of socio-economic transformation, when the final pas de deux is stolen from the daughter, Marie, and given to the single mother, the widow, dancing with the Impresario, as Marie looks on lovingly. She wants nothing more than a happy Mother. The dream fades away and we are back in the hut on Christmas Day. The Impresario has returned to the hut, now we see clearly, to marry the widow, and the family can be whole again. Merry Christmas. This is the only scene with any punch, and it knocks out everything else… but “everything else” is what we know as “The Nutcracker”.

**111