The Joffrey’s new Nutcracker’ is Marie’s (and Chicago’s) dream come true

For many Chicagoans, The Joffrey Ballet’s iconic take on “The Nutcracker” is their Christmas moment of beautiful peace, of brilliant eye candy and even a little bit of zen. Wondering what the highly anticipated world premiere of “The Nutcracker” looks like this year, helmed by Artistic Director Ashley Wheater, Executive Director Greg Cameron and Tony Award-winning choreographer Christopher Wheeldon? In a word: Dazzling.

If you go

Runs through Dec. 30, 2016

Auditorium Theatre, Chicago

Flipping the traditional story on its head (or toe shoe), the tale leaves the wealthy homestead of Marie and family, instead taking place in a shack near the future setting of the 1893 Chicago Columbian World’s Exposition. Workers from around the world have descended to create the masterpiece, and they’re welcomed for a party into the home of Marie’s mother, a sculptress tasked with creating a showstopping work of art. Among the more notable guests at the Christmas Eve festivities are the magician Impresario and his apprentice, Peter. Young Marie is gifted with a very special doll–one Nutcracker, to be precise–and, well, more than a little magic ensues.

This new production was crafted with some of the greatest minds in theater (who possess an unbelievable number of combined Tony Awards), and it shows. Every detail is exquisite, from the new narrative and character arcs to the accompanying newsreel and construction projections. While no less respectful of Tchaikovsky’s score (performed by the Chicago Philharmonic Orchestra and led by Joffrey Music Director Scott Speck) and the history of this beautiful ballet, the new Nutcracker is fresh, exceptionally cool and downright reverent of Chicago’s rich history. Incredible moments in the show included the swapping out of the traditional Land of Sweets dancers for World’s Fair exhibitors; Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and his dancing girls were a terrific addition, as were Mother Nutcracker’s tiny children.

Fans of the traditional Arabian, Spanish and Chinese dancers will be happy to know that they’re still present (the latter accompanied by marvelous Chinese dragons), and they were joined by masked Venetian dancers, Ice Cavaliers and Snowflakes–pitch perfect, all. (April Daly’s turn as Mother was a beautiful choice, as was the surprise crossover character she appears as later in the story.) The children’s cast, for its part, was delightfully large, and the collection of junior snowflakes, ragamuffins, tiny workers, waves, dragons and walnuts pushed an already enchanting evening straight over the top into joy.

I had a chance to speak with Suzanne Lopez, Ballet Master at the Joffrey and the one in charge of that aforementioned children’s cast–which includes more than 90 kids from the Chicagoland area. Before she ran herd on this crew of tiny dancers, she was a Joffrey Company Member since 1991 and a principal dancer for many notable shows. (Among her favorite roles were Juliet in “Romeo and Juliet” and, to the joy of my daughters, the Sugar Plum Fairy in previous incarnations of the “The Nutcracker.”)

“There’s something so magical about dancing a very difficult and classical role in a children’s ballet,” she tells me. “Kids are always the hardest audience members to keep entertained, but I enjoyed the challenge.” Transitioning into her new career was ultimately a great move, and Lopez says “it also helps that I adore my coworkers. We’re a family.”

Speaking of family, her daughter Lola Prisco is a member of the children’s cast (playing a Rich Girl, a Worker Girl and a Walnut) and has been in the previous Nutcracker ensembles as well. Lopez says that her daughter had to audition like everybody else, and that “she works really hard,” which makes her job easier. Lola’s take on Mom as boss: “It’s a little weird getting taught how to do a dance by your mom, but it is still fun at the same time. It’s also easier to sew my pointe shoes, because she knows how to sew them just right and where to break them in.”

When asked about scenes which audiences will adore, Prisco thinks her favorite moment of Impresario creating a Shadow Fair out of junk handed to him by Ragamuffins and Workers will be a highlight. Lopez, when catching a preview of the Party Scene from the wings, teared up at the story shift from the usual, very privileged family to the new homestead in a shack, “… with a community of families making the most of their limited resources, in order to throw a Christmas party. It’s heart-warming and touching, and makes the wonder of young Marie’s dream even more magical.”

As for witnessing her daughter on a beloved stage, Lopez shares a memory from her daughter’s first Nutcracker: “I was about to watch my daughter perform in a production … that I had danced countless times, and on a stage that has become my second home. It was incredibly surreal, and I’ll never forget that wonderful feeling.”

And ready for a little Joffrey trivia? My 5-year-old was blown away by the seemingly endless snow flurries that covered the stage as the show progressed. But she was concerned, too; what was all that glittery, sparkly snow made out of? And wasn’t it slippery to the dancers and their downright acrobatic dancing? Turns out, it’s made of paper cut into rounds and clovers, and treated with fire retardant. And yes, to the everyday Chicagoan, the snowflakes would be incredibly slippery. But luckily enough for audiences, the Joffrey’s dancers are no ordinary folk, and the skill necessary to dance in the “elements” adds just one more layer of magic to this already fantastical ballet.

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