Curtain up on the Joffrey's third season of Christopher Wheeldon's Nutcracker, which resituates the popular Christmas ballet in Chicago during the 1893 Columbian Exposition. In his note to the program, artistic director Ashley Wheater quotes historian Peter Bacon Hales: "The White City is a utopian city, a model for redefining modern urban life." However, Wheater doesn't get to the end of the paragraph: "But it was doomed to decay and disappearance: its best hope . . . was to have it burn in one vast conflagration, rather than betray its promise." Those plaster edifices, hastily spray-painted with lead whitewash, offer an apt metaphor for this Nutcracker, a production that seems to have spent the bulk of its $4 million budget on special effects at the expense of plot, pathos, or even palatable choreography. What place do unironic jazz hands have in the glittering dash of the Waltz of the Snowflakes? But then, how else can one create the illusion of movement when the choreographic vision has decreed all flurries must stand still?
Marie's journey through the White City in the company of a magic nutcracker takes her through pavilions that reveal outmoded stereotypes of various regions of the world. The most memorable dances are also the most offensive: a hypersexual Arabian duet, Buffalo Bill chasing three showgirls with a lasso. Most charming is the pert band of child Walnuts who ham it up beneath the skirts of a sassy Mother Nutcracker. It almost makes you forget that once this was a heartwarming holiday ballet about adolescent awakening as mediated by a slightly creepy uncle. v