There are as many ways of getting into the spirit of the season as there are needles on a 6-foot Fraser fir. or some, it’s shopping on North Michigan. For others, it’s stringing lights outside the house, or perhaps strapping on skates and cutting a figure eight. For plenty of people, the Yuletide wouldn’t be complete without taking in a performance of “The Nutcracker.” And The Joffrey Ballet’s production — now in full swing at the Auditorium Theatre — hits the spot like a hot chocolate garnished with a candy cane.
While the ballet is as much a tradition as “Messiah” and “A Christmas Carol,” it’s a relative newcomer as holiday entertainment in the U.S. First performed at St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre in 1892, it didn’t hit these shores until 1940, in an abbreviated production by the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo. Robert Joffrey, who’d been an extra in that production, first offered his own version in 1987.
Joffrey, whose vision of American dancing converted many to what had previously been seen as effete European art form, set his ballet in a 19th century American home. The original decor, by Oliver Smith, took its cues from Joffrey’s personal collection of Americana. “Robert Joffrey loved the Christmas holiday, and poured his heart into this production,” notes the company’s artistic director Ashley Wheater. “I have seen many ‘Nutcrackers’ through the years, but Joffrey’s first-act party scene is the best of them all. The staging and choreography is incredibly complicated, but feels like a real holiday party in the home of a family you or I might know.”
Assisting Joffrey in this effort was his partner and colleague, the late Gerald Arpino, who choreographed various passages, including the “Waltz of the Snowflakes.” Arpino wasn’t keen on the project, but, as he remarked some years back, Joffrey insisted, saying “You must do it, but do it your way.” His way, Arpino related, combined neoclassicism with a distinctly “American aspect of rhythm and form.”
Naturally, most audience members won’t be parsing the choreographic nuances of the ballet. Instead, they’ll be lost in the Christmas Eve-set story of a little girl and her dreams. As Wheater observes, “We share a desire for families to gather at the holidays. And Clara may represent the classic American child: curious, independent, adventurous and open to a world of possibilities.”
‘The Nutcracker’: Through Dec. 28. Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress. Tickets ($32-$134) are available at Joffrey.org/nutcracker.