ROBERT JOFFREY’S THE NUTCRACKER: Christmas in the Shadow of Death

nutcracker0001Chicago’s Auditorium Theater is the perfect setting to view Robert Joffery’s jarring, beautiful, and profound interpretation of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Nutcracker danced brilliantly by his namesake company, and played wonderfully by the Chicago Philharmonic Orchestra.

Adler and Sullivan’s magnificent theater interior was meant “to express growth and decadence as the two great cyclic rhythms of nature. Arching over the stage’s proscenium opening are painted human figures, in a mural by Charles Holloway, ascending from the auditorium’s right from a winged figure before a bright fire, through youth – love, dance, parenthood- to a summit declaring,

“The utterance of life is a song, the symphony of nature”,


before beginning their descent – an aged mentor with pupil, figures bereaving, figures repenting, to the cross, and monks chanting a dirge.


The mural’s arch of human life is then echoed across the great breathtaking ivory and gold ceiling’s rows of glowing lights, suggesting the ultimate transcendent glory residing beyond the human natural cycle.

proscenium mural

At the rear of the great auditorium two large Victorian murals by Albert Francis Fleury repeat the motif with the human cycle’s beginning and end. In each mural a solitary figure communes with nature for his inspiration. The rear house right mural depicts an artist in spring uttering the caption, “O, soft, melodious spring time! First-born of life and love.” The rear house left mural depicts autumn’s bleak valley, a figure mouthing the caption, “A great life has passed into the tomb and there awaits the requiem of winter’s snow.”


Sullivan wrote, “By their symbolism the mural poems suggest the compensating phases of nature and of human life in all their varied manifestations. Naturally are suggested the light and the grave in music, the joyous and the tragic in drama.”

In 1987 Robert Joffrey created The Nutcracker from the left mural’s bleak valley of autumn.

Joffrey was dying.

His co-choreographer was Death himself.

The resultant ballet meditates on celebrating Christmas in the Shadow of the Valley of Death.

All studies show that more people die on Christmas Day than on any other day of the year. Countless others spend Christmas with the painful memory of a loved one deceased. Even more people suffer the living death of lonliness.

So, with these facts in mind,  Robert Joffrey’s ballet opens with a Victorian American family and friends travelling to a Currier and Ives household celebration. However, one figure seems to have wandered in from another story, possibly Edward Gorey’s 1977 Dracula. The man even resembles Frank Langella, in black cape, black eye patch, and displaying a sinister gait.

It is Death come in the guise, not of a serpent, but of Dr. Drosselmeyer.

Still a child pleaser at the celebration, his true identity unknown, Drosselmeyer seems intent on captivating and capturing the heart and soul of Clara. Later this Drosselmeyer seems to be, not Lord of the Flies this time, but the Lord of the Mice. He hovers over the grandfather clock, his caped arms flapping bat-like at each of the twelve chimes. He then sprinkles witching dust in the air to cause Clara to sleep, a sleep from which she will not wake.

In her dream Clara finds Drosselmeyer imposing himself beside her on her throne as he lures her and tempts her with happy children and toys from around the world, suggesting that they will be her friends should she leave with him. (Drosselmeyer’s actions echo the serpent’s temptation of Eve in the garden.) As she watches Drosselmeyer’s world-wide cavalcade, Clara ages, leans on him, almost becoming his paramour.

The great Pas de Deux arrives, the dancers all in white to contrast with Drosselmeyer’s darkness, and suggests the parts of the natural life cycle Clara will not have experienced when she departs with Drosselmeyer. The strains of the famous “Intrada” are, in this context, even more heartbreaking than usual. The sound could make a stone weep.

At the end, Clara never wakes. She and Drosselmeyer/Death leave the earth, begin to ascend together in a hot air balloon.

The Nutcracker’s first choreographer, Marius Petipa, like Robert Joffrey, worked from the “autumn” perspective. Troubled by a crippling disease, Pepita relied on his co-choreographer, Lev Ivanov, just as Joffrey relied on his partner, Gerald Arpino.

This is a ballet for the history books. Daring, profound, beautiful, and emotionally moving on many levels.

Robert Joffrey’s The Nutcracker forces us to see that, like the original Nativity itself, death surrounds eveyone, even as we welcome the One who will, in the Spring, crack and destroy the hardest nut of all, Death itself.

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