Review: Christopher Wheeldon’s Nutcracker at Hancher Auditorium

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Tessa Solomon

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Hours before Hancher’s curtain rose for its final preview of the Joffrey Ballet’s reimagined Nutcracker, Iowa City felt its first substantial downpour of snow.

Snowflakes coated the crowd of attendees. Children dressed in Wellies and their Sunday best walked beside parents in fur coats, kicking the bright white mounds and catching flakes on their tongues.

In the auditorium, a steady buzz  betrayed the audience’s excitement for their glimpse at Christopher Wheeldon’s rejuvenated ballet, nearly ten years in the making, a mood accentuated by the stage’s projection: The Nutcracker, crimson and subtle, undulating against a black, foggy sky.

The lights dimmed.

Orchestra Iowa came to life with a full, resounding rendition of Tchaikovsky’s classic Overture. The projection’s text slowly retreats into the dark sky, obscured by clouds until it has faded, replaced by cycling, sepia newspaper clipping covering the ballet’s setting — the 1893 Chicago’s World the Fair. Mixed with the fanciful music, the feeling conveyed is uplifting. That is, until the final projection, when a glorious vision of the fair dims and grows distant, the lifting lights revealing the wooden fence containing the splendor. Outside it, young boys kick cans and rough house one another, brown trousers and suspenders betraying them to the working class.

Immediately, the audience understands the perspective that they will be watching this reinvention through: that of the outsider, who lingers a rock’s toss from splendor but irrevocably shut out from it by socio-economic barriers.

It’s a stark, refreshing deviation from the Nutcracker’s original setting: a wealthy household indulging in the luxuries of their good fortune. The cast, a tight-knit community of  Eastern European immigrants, gives the narrative new depths. When Marie, played by a sure-footed April Daly, receives her Nutcracker from the Great Impresario (Wheeldon’s version of Drosselmeyer) her besotted gaze became all the more powerful in the context of her modest wooden home.

The dances, too, benefits from the story shift. Careful waltzes are eschewed for expansive, elbow-linking numbers comprised of syncopated swirls and stomps derivative of Polish folkdance. Joyfully packed into Maria’s shack, the neighborhood folk don masks, exaggerating bows as they satirize the upper-echelon’s stuffy waltzes.

Competing with the choreography for the audience’s attention were scenic designer Julian Crouch’s masterful use of projections, the most breathtaking of which came in Marie’s transition into the fantastic world of the second act.

After a fanciful fight between the Nutcracker and the Rat King’s army of rodents — all brilliantly costumed in Basil Twist’s creations by coil what looks like a breathing, grain wooden head of the Nutcracker — The Great Impresario works his magic. Lights strobe as the lithe dancer whips his cape, twisting the simultaneously wonder-struck and fearful Marie like a marionette.

The dance is equally as menacing and mesmerizing as the orchestra is, growing the monstrous Christmas tree taller with every crescendo and furious twirl. When the tree reaches its peak, festive, crystallized branches slide in from both stage left and right, framing our heroine as she stares in awe at the world she, and the audience, has been transported into.

Once inside the White City the music takes on a more traditional structure, but the arrangement stays consistent with Wheeldon’s fluid, contemporary touch. The meticulous attention to costumes and sets becomes more apparent here as well. A favorite costume is difficult to decide, with the contenders being the the icy blue tulle and silver of the waltzing snowflakes or the liquid gold gown and sparkling bust of the Golden Statue (Wheeldon’s Sugar Plum Fairy).

The delightful genius of Twist’s set also impresses, whether it be through the snowy boat gliding over a smoky lake, Mother Ginger’s walnut dancers that crack their shells intermittently while fleeing from nutcrackers, or the flowing red dragons spinning in a dizzying parallel during one of the show’s most visually stunning scenes.

Almost every element of the second act is infused with themes reminiscent of the Chicago World’s Fair. Buffalo Bill joins the Arabian, Spanish, and Chinese dancers with a lasso-spinning, pistol-whipping slideshow. Citizens — dressed in the white suits and ruffled gowns of a 19th century attendee lucky enough for the funds for a ticket — frame Marie and her handsome prince throughout their dances, though it is the palpable passion of the Golden Statue and her King’s pas de deux that leaves the most lasting impression.

After the show attendees re-entered the cold, coats buttoned and gloves donned. The snow had already begun melting, flooding the parking lot with rivers of grey slush. Then, it was easy to imagine how Marie must have felt after waking from her journey: the dream may have departed, one’s eyes may have already begun adjusting to a familiar world, but nonetheless one’s core is still warmed by remnants of magic.

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