The familiar Tchaikovsky holiday confection is so gooey sweet that many dance cognoscenti view “The Nutcracker” much the way opera lovers look at “3 Tenors” concerts: i.e., they think it has nothing whatsoever to do with art. Thankfully, the late Robert Joffrey did not share that view. As a choreographer, Joffrey came to “The Nutcracker” rather late, offering the premiere of his “American” slant on the ballet twenty years ago, only a year before his death in 1988. Once the ballet company that bears Joffrey’s name made Chicago its home, it was inevitable that Joffrey’s particular take on the work would make its way into the already crowded “Nutcracker” marketplace and it quickly overshadowed all others, even the Ruth Page version that was performed for more than three decades at the Arie Crown Theatre. Joffrey’s conception of “The Nutcracker” is Victorian America, say Boston circa 1850. The look is Currier & Ives and is always visually compelling, with period costumes and a color scheme of aquas, blues, purples and magentas to match. But what really stands out in the Joffrey version is the transformation to the world of Clara’s imagination: a land of sugar-plum fairies and waltzing snowflakes that is as beautiful as it is magical. Both Clara and her Nutcracker prince, who are being danced by alternating performers, are true dancers (the Ruth Page version would cast children in the roles and give them surrogate dancers for their most important scenes together). The snowy winter wonderland—a stunning scene choreographed by Joffrey co-founder and artistic director Gerald Arpino—is a magical, silver snowscape where we are treated to the “Waltz of the Snowflakes,” complete with the extravagance of having a different live area children’s chorus perform the ethereal vocalizations that Tchaikovsky called for at every performance, not to mention the superb orchestral accompaniment provided by the Chicago Sinfonietta under the baton of Leslie Dunner. The dance revue that makes up Act II is gracefully performed, yet isn’t afraid to display a sense of humor when appropriate, including a giant gingerbread puppet. (Dennis Polkow)
“The Nutcracker” plays at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 East Congress, (312)902-1500, through December 27.