Armstrong: Tough Nutcracker to crack

Hancher+Auditorium+ribbon+cutting+ceremony+and+open+tour+took+place+in+Iowa+City%2C+Iowa+on+Friday+September+9th%2C+2016.+The+new+Hancher+Auditorium+is+finally+open+after+years+of+construction+and+had+its+first+show+on+September+24th.++%28The+Daily+Iowan%2FAnthony+Vazquez%29

Hancher Auditorium ribbon cutting ceremony and open tour took place in Iowa City, Iowa on Friday September 9th, 2016. The new Hancher Auditorium is finally open after years of construction and had its first show on September 24th. (The Daily Iowan/Anthony Vazquez)

By Dorothy Armstrong

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I love The Nutcracker. As a dancer, as an audience member, as a pop-culture consumer — I willingly admit to a fervent devotion bordering on mild obsession. I know the score by heart; I’ve performed roles ranging from mouse to snowflake to the Sugar Plum Fairy. For me, The Nutcracker is a centerpiece of December’s jollity and magic.

So, naturally, when Hancher announced the Joffrey was in town with an entirely new Nutcracker, I was thrilled. The promise: a revisionist ballet, choreographed by iconic dance artist Christopher Wheeldon and adapted by acclaimed novelist Brian Selznick. A fresh take on a beloved, much-replicated tale. Wow, I thought, dreams do come true. Or, as I discovered, dreams produce thorny questions about the real cost of theater.

Wheeldon’s Nutcracker redux shifts the ballet away from the traditional narrative and historical setting. The story, written in 1816 by E.T.A. Hoffmann, no longer centers on an upper-crust German family living in luxury. Instead, it takes place in Chicago. But not just any Chicago. Selznick locates the production during the construction of the 1893 World’s Fair. Thus, a Nutcracker for the common man.

The main characters, introduced in Act I during a humble Christmas party, come from a community of construction workers, artists, and immigrants who dream of strolling through the lavish grounds of the as-yet-unfinished fair. After a scuffle with the Mouse King, Marie (the protagonist) and her Nutcracker Prince are whisked away by the fair’s Grand Impresario amid intricate patterns of dancing snowflakes. Then, the curtain opens on Act II: a completed World’s Fair, the Land of the Sweets reimagined with an American realist twist. The Waltz of the Flowers became the Waltz of the Fair-Goers, complete with Epcot flags and delightful 19th-century high-fashion tourist outfits. The fantasy focused on aesthetic completion and adventure rather than global capitalism. The dancing was, of course, phenomenal. But something felt … off.

The problem lay in the lavish set design, the enormous cast, the impeccably constructed costumes. I’ll put it bluntly: The production revealed its cost.

Wheeldon’s budget for the show, according to the New York Times, topped off at $4 million. For a tale about working-class Chicagoans, the man gets $4 million. Somehow, that doesn’t seem appropriate. And the performance was truly excessive as a result.

Wheeldon really held nothing back: to facilitate the radical retelling of a seasonal crowd-pleaser, he tossed in all sorts of pyrotechnics to capture the audience with pure thrill. Hancher’s stage is fully equipped, which means it contains too many computer projection gadgets to name. The combined theatrical effect was an uncomfortable exhibition of cutting-edge technology, with the whole thing just looking like money. Wheeldon seemed awfully interested in dropping cash on cheap tricks despite his mission to feature the “huddled masses” of America. In a New York Times interview, Wheeldon justifies the excess by claiming, “It takes you on an almost three-dimensional cinematic journey.” I’d like to think viewers aren’t so jaded by screens as to mistake ballet for film. It’s live performance — and to compromise the point of such a performance with high-tech wizardry was a mistake.

A big budget does ensure a spectacular show. Did I enjoy the seamless artifice? You bet. But I couldn’t reconcile the Joffrey’s expenditures with the aim of the new Nutcracker. Wouldn’t it have been more poignant and effective to construct a show with as little money as possible? If Wheeldon meant for this show to prove that the best things about Christmas transcend class boundaries, he failed to deliver.

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