Ensemble of the Joffrey Ballet's The Nutcracker assembled in front of a screen showing shadows of the upcoming 1893 Columbian Exposition
The Joffrey Ballet's Chicago-centric production of The Nutcracker is now at the Lyric Opera House. Credit: Todd Rosenberg

Year after year the critic comes, that unkind aunt who wasn’t quite invited to the house spoiling Christmas for the children by pointing out that The Nutcracker is, like most American traditions, not as old and established as it purports to be and problematic where it comes to gender and race to boot. This year, one year after The Year Without a Nutcracker, five years after the premiere of this $4 million production, my third year viewing (and reviewing) this production, and its first year in the Joffrey’s new home at the Lyric Opera House, let’s see if this Carabosse can pull a Drosselmeyer and offer an unasked-for gift that might help this ballet mature—or at least imagine doing so.

Dancers across America are strapping on their pointe shoes for the story of an adolescent girl’s coming of age through a magical journey through the Kingdom of Sweets accompanied by a nutcracker prince. The Joffrey’s city-specific production, choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon with libretto by Brian Selznick in 2016, sets the ballet on Christmas Eve before the 1893 Columbian Exposition. The choice to reference Chicago’s first world’s fair, named for the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival on these shores, is perhaps a little too on point with regard to the second act, which doubles as a safari through “world” cultures, in which some are celebrated and others are presented as caricatures and curiosities. 

It is also chronologically accurate: the original production of The Nutcracker (composed by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, with a libretto adapted from a story by E.T.A. Hoffmann) premiered—to critical derision—in 1892. Occasionally revived in Europe and the UK, the ballet ultimately gained status as a cultural institution in 1950s America, assisted by the use of Tchaikovsky’s suite in Disney’s Fantasia in 1940, with nostalgic productions by San Francisco Ballet (1944) and New York City Ballet (1954). Today, this pre-civil rights leftover is Black Friday in the form of a ballet, pulling families together to generate nearly half the year’s revenue in classical dance

In many productions of the Nutcracker, the party scene is the necessary exposition before the “real” dancing begins in the buffet of divertissements in act two. However, in the Joffrey’s production, the sweetness of the first act derives from its specificity to place and character—in other words, one could say the Exposition is everything. 

The Nutcracker
[UPDATE: As of December 23, the Joffrey announced that all remaining performances of The Nutcracker had been canceled. Contact box office for information about refunds.] Through 12/26: Wed-Fri 7 PM, Sat 2 and 7 PM, Sun 1 and 6 PM; also Tue 12/21, 2 and 7 PM, Wed-Thu 12/22 and 12/23, 2 PM; Fri 12/24, 2 PM only; no performances Wed 12/8 or Sat 12/25; Lyric Opera House, 20 N. Wacker, 312-386-8905, joffrey.org, $35-$199.

When the curtain rises on the Joffrey’s production, we are not at the opulent home of the bourgeois German family of Hoffmann’s story. Instead, we are on a construction site for the World’s Fair, filled with workers, rats, and sooty-faced kids (within the opulent setting of our jewel box of an opera house), who tussle and tease each other before repairing to the humbly humongous cabin where siblings Marie and Franz and their mother live. Around a scraggly twig of a Christmas tree, a community of holiday celebrants assemble to dance and make merry.

At their party plays a musical arrangement by Ljova, an adaptation of the traditional score for violin, cello, and clarinet—this year revised for violin, accordion, and clarinet. While this modest rendition might seem a flimsy substitute for the lush Tchaikovsky orchestral score, the musicians are placed downstage right in period costume rather than hidden in the pit, enriching the story with additional characters rather than keeping them in the background to the action.

The directorial decision to foreground simplicity and humanity parallels the essence of the scene that occurs when the Great Impresario of the Fair arrives with a flourish of his cape, bearing a wagonful of ordinary odds and ends. The partygoers are bewildered until the sorcerer shows his hand: these household knickknacks are pieces of a puzzle, which, assembled, create an animated magic lantern show of the Fairgrounds to come. Though narratively, he’s there to give Marie the Nutcracker (and incidentally his apprentice Peter), witnessing the mechanics of such practical magic offers the most compelling message of the evening—that the revelation of the beauty and majesty of everyday instruments in relation to one another is the heart of theater.

Hyuma Kiyosawa and Yumi Kanazawa in the Joffrey Ballet’s The Nutcracker Credit: Todd Rosenberg

With regard to the other dances, Wheeldon seems to have taken pains to diverge from choreographic choices his predecessors have made, producing a static Snow, insipid Spanish and Marzipan (here Venetian) variations, and an awkwardly gymnastic grand pas de deux (simply because contemporary technique allows someone to be swept into a fish dive by somersaulting over her partner’s back does not mean that it needs to be done). Yet he has unfortunately not diverged from the colonialist cultural choices his predecessors have made: a condescendingly cute and culturally inaccurate Chinese variation (performed at opening in yellowface) and an Arabian variation featuring a nearly naked, hyperflexible woman who is manhandled onstage because cultural taboos are OK as long as they’re exotic. 

It’s 2021: why keep replicating the assumption that everything is beautiful at the ballet? Here’s a proposition: why not bring living Chicagoans who practice these forms onstage to share their culture? Why keep denying everyone the opportunity to step aside and learn? (Yet lest we think misogyny is only a foreign concept, the Russian variation here is American Buffalo Bill shaking his lasso around some Vegas-esque showgirls—there’s probably a conspiracy theory here somewhere.)

Those coming for the ballet’s creepy psychosexual dynamics will be satisfied. The Great Impresario makes his presence first known to Marie by tapping her from behind with his stick. The upright wooden Nutcracker first appears as an unidentifiable protuberance beneath a velvet cloth, to the excitement of the boys onstage, but ultimately it is not a gift for them (at least in this narrative). Little brother Franz receives a scare when his hand is thrust into the cavernous bag of the Rat Catcher, which is presumably lined with the teeth of biting rodents. The dream scene is preceded by the burgeoning growth of the Christmas tree. Marie is hypnotized by the dangerous and mysterious Great Impresario, fantasizes that he’ll get together with her mother, yet also fantasizes she is her mother. It’s called the Nutcracker, folks, need I say more? 

In terms of performance, the dancers of the Joffrey are beyond reproach. At opening, Yumi Kanazawa as Marie and Hyuma Kiyosawa as Peter were a delightful vision of youth and enthusiasm. The snow corps leaned into the camp of their scene, taking a page out of Mark Morris’s book by heaving fistfuls of snow before the jazz hands and Saturday Night Feveresque-pointing takes over the choreography (maybe add glitter and a disco ball next year?). Fernando Duarte and Xavier Núñez fired off a boisterously excellent duet as the teenage boys in the party scene. This duet would be just as excellent without the cowboy-and-Indian costume pieces, but I digress. 

One guest of note at the party is a girl in a wheelchair, a Christmas tradition at least as old as Tiny Tim. But whereas Tiny Tim has his part in A Christmas Carol, this figure does not seem to have a role beyond being Black and in a wheelchair—in other words, she’s visually having to do a lot of work for everyone who is not usually onstage at the ballet. In terms of representation, it matters that she can be a guest at this party—however, during the dances, she is nowhere to be seen. 

The problem of representation extends more generally into the casting, and ultimately into the content of this work. To see a ballet cast such that people of color are not only integrated but dance principal roles is without a doubt worth celebrating. Yet if the content and the choreography still reinforce segregation, sexism, and racial stereotypes, their presence within the work re-creates them in the image of their oppressors (let this henceforth be known as the Hamilton Complex). Mere inclusion is therefore not enough: as anyone who has ever watched a ballet knows, though the majority of people onstage are women, ballet has not yet become feminist. So there is still work to be done—and it needs to be done on the level of direction, choreography, and concept.