For some people, seeing the windows decorated on State Street is the quintessential holiday activity. For others, it's baking Christmas cookies. For me, it's seeing The Joffrey Ballet's "The Nutcracker."
In its 27th year, Robert Joffrey's "The Nutcracker" tells the story of a nutcracker the mysterious Drosselmeyer brings to young Clara at a Christmas Eve party. From here the Nutcracker Prince comes to life and battles the Mouse King, then the Snow King and Queen whisk Clara away to the enchanted forest and Kingdom of Sweets.
Since its inception, "The Nutcracker" has stayed very true to Joffrey's vision, but that doesn't make it outdated. The great thing about "The Nutcracker," like any holiday tradition, is that it seems new and fun each year, a credit to the insanely talented Joffrey dancers, set and costume designers.
What "The Nutcracker" truly excels at is setting a scene. From the 19th-century Christmas Eve party to the Kingdom of Sweets, the combination of set pieces, props, costumes and choreography transport the viewer to wherever the Joffrey wishes to take them.
This is most evident in "Journey through the Snow" as the Snow King and Queen, snowflakes and angels dance among life-like fluffy falling snow in a sparkling snow-covered forest. The scene mixed with Tchaikovsky's masterpiece is awe-inspiring - you might even cry (I did three times throughout the performance).
The snow scene was special for another reason - Victoria Jaiani's portrayal of The Snow Queen. During the opening night performance, Jaiani was triple-cast as Clara's mom Mrs. Stahlbaum, Snow Queen and Coffee from Arabia, the perfect mix of delicate and seductive in one ballet.
Coming off a run as both Odette and Odile in Christopher Wheeldon's "Swan Lake" at the Joffrey earlier this year, Jaiani was poised to play the part. Her extension, lines and grace are impeccable - Jaiani is what comes to mind when you think of the quintessential ballerina.
But the stars of the show are the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Nutcracker Prince, played by Jeraldine Mendoza and Dylan Gutierrez, respectively.
The two dance the mesmerizing "Grand Pas de Deux" and then trade off dancing flawless solos - Gutierrez making quadruple pirouettes seem easy, and Mendoza bringing an effortless charm to the dainty fairy.
But what makes Joffrey's "The Nutcracker" so special is that's it's the perfect gateway for anyone, young or old, to enjoy ballet or classical music. While other pieces might not be accessible for new audiences, "The Nutcracker" has the music and story everyone knows. Perfect for kids, perfect for adults, perfect for dance connoisseurs, perfect for anyone. "The Nutcracker" is Christmas.
The Joffrey Ballet's "The Nutcracker" runs through Dec. 28 at the Auditorium Theater.
Snow King and Queen photo by Herbert Migdoll; other photos by Cheryl Mann