“Where’s the little girl?” the child seated in the row behind me asked her mother near the start of Act II of the Joffrey Ballet’s production of “The Nutcracker,” now at the Auditorium Theatre. The child was trying to glimpse Clara, the prepubescent girl at the heart of this story of Christmas dreams gone wild. Temporarily hidden by a flurry of tulle and snowflakes, Clara soon emerged. But at the Joffrey, Clara (beautifully danced by Cara Marie Gary) is no little girl.
A seminal difference between “The Nutcracker” conceived by company founder Robert Joffrey and that of his longtime rival, George Balanchine, is that the latter chose to cast a true-to-age girl in the part, while Joffrey opted for a petite adult ballerina, as did earlier Russian choreographers. This is not necessarily a bad thing — it allows for a more choreographically advanced Clara — just something to be aware of for those expecting a girl in the role. In any case, the Joffrey production highlights dancing and singing children by the dozens, adding a youthful freshness to the art of the reliably talented adults in the corps.
Whether your preference is for a youthful or adult Clara, you will find much to admire in the Joffrey “Nutcracker,” beginning with the musical score by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, perhaps the best ballet score of all time. The Chicago Philharmonic, led by Joffrey music director Scott Speck, brings out the full beauty and variety of the score. Young singers from five local children’s choirs — the Anima Young Singers of Greater Chicago, the Barrington Children’s Choir, the Jones College Prep High School Treble Choir, the Pro Musica Youth Chorus and the Providence-St. Mel School Choir — add their voices to the magical snow scene and entertain audiences pre-show and at intermission in the Auditorium’s main lobby.
The plot of this story ballet makes as much sense as any and maintains several of the elements that date back to its first production, choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov. Based on E.T.A. Hoffmann’s story, “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King,” the ballet premiered in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1892. Subsequent versions evolved in Russia and England, and “The Nutcracker” traveled to the U.S. in the 1940s, first to New York City and then to San Francisco. George Balanchine’s 1954 staging for the New York City Ballet created a ripple effect throughout the U.S., with professional and community dance companies performing “The Nutcracker” in cities large and small during the holiday season. Robert Joffrey’s version, which includes choreography by Gerald Arpino for “Waltz of the Snowflakes” and “Waltz of the Flowers,” premiered in 1987 at the University of Iowa.
The curtain rises on a sumptuous rose-and-emerald set designed by Oliver Smith, the Victorian parlor of a well-to-do American family done up to the nines for Christmas, but with a hint of what it is to come in the ominous owl clock. The family — Mayor Stahlbaum (danced by Temur Suluashvili), his wife (on stage an in real life, Victoria Jaiani) and their children, Clara and her pesky brother Fritz (Derrick Agnoletti) — welcomes the children’s godfather, the mysterious Dr. Drosselmeyer (elegantly danced by Lucas Segovia) and his nephew (Ogulcan Borova), bearing gifts.
Clara is delighted with her gift, a wooden nutcracker, which her pest of a brother immediately breaks. The party winds down, the guests depart and the family retires. When Clara awakes and returns to the parlor to check on her nutcracker, she encounters teasing mice. Drosselmeyer returns to chase the mice and transform everything before Clara’s eyes: the nutcracker rises from a puff of smoke to become a powerful, life-size Nutcracker Doll (Graham Maverick), who commands a battalion of grownup toy soldiers to thwart the now gigantic mice. Clara’s kiss transforms him into the Nutcracker Prince (Dylan Gutierrez), and they travel to the Land of Snow, where the Snow Queen (Christine Rocas) and King (Temur Suluashvili) perform a lovely pas de deux in the snowflakes and introduce a series of entertainments in the Kingdom of Sweets.
There, lithe April Daly sparkles as the Sugar Plum Fairy, Anastacia Holden and Derrick Agnoletti divert as Tea from China, and Christine Rocas and Rory Hohenstein enchant as the sinuous duo, Coffee from Arabia. Emerging from under the skirts of the giant Mother Ginger puppet designed by Kermit Love are the Polichinelles, spirited young dancers who steal the show with their precision and one-handed cartwheels.
Children’s ballet master Katie Kirwan deserves high praise for shaping her corps of 118 young dancers from the Chicago area, who perform at alternate performances as Party Girls and Boys in the opening scene and Battle Mice, Mounted Mice, Soldiers, Snow Tree Angels and Dolls in the second act. What is striking about Kirwan’s kiddie corps is not only their technique but that they appear to be having a wonderful time. The latter holds true for the audience too.
A couple tips for planning your visit: Curtain time is earlier than usual (7 pm for evening performances) to accommodate the many children in the audience. Request the use of a free booster cushion at the theater office to elevate children who might have trouble seeing above others’ heads. Arrive early, perhaps first getting a bite to eat at nearby Cafecito, a casual restaurant serving topnotch pressed Cuban sandwiches. If you drive, consider prepaying for parking to secure a reserved spot at a good price. I food a spot through ParkWhiz for a mere $2.35 — the best holiday gift of all.
Joffrey Ballet: The Nutcracker
Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University, 50 E. Congress Pkwy., Chicago
Through Dec. 28, 2013