The Joffrey Ballet takes “The Nutcracker” to a dynamically different time and place in its groundbreaking new production of the holiday favorite.
Yes, mice will take the stage in The Joffrey Ballet’s new production of “The Nutcracker” at the Auditorium Theatre this December. But Ashley Wheater, the company’s artistic director, declined to reveal the size or shape of Mother Ginger, the giant figure that appears with her children, the eight acrobatic polichinelles who emerge from her voluminous skirt.
That will be just one of the many surprises when a completely new and reimagined treatment of the ballet by Tony Award-winning choreographer Christopher Wheeldon replaces Robert Joffrey’s popular 1987 production of the holiday classic. This world premiere is being called a “Nutcracker” for the 21st century, and the action will take place at the World’s Columbian Exposition, which ran in Chicago from May to October of 1893.
According to Wheater, the catalyst for a new production was twofold. He and Wheeldon were having lunch in 2007 and the choreographer remarked, “You know, I’ve never done a ‘Nutcracker.’ I’d love to do one for you.” To which Wheater quickly replied, “I’m going to hold you to that!
“At the same time, our ‘Nutcracker’ was falling apart,” he explains. “The sets, the costumes, everything. It was not going to last unless we invested a huge amount of money rebuilding the entire production.” He explained the situation to the company’s board of directors. “They understood,” he says, “and they supported a new ballet. We have a terrific board!”
Wheeldon’s work has been an integral part of the Joffrey’s repertoire since 2009, when the company presented his “Carousel,” danced to the music of Broadway composer Richard Rodgers. Since then, the company has performed his “After the Rain” in 2010, “Continuum” and “Swan Lake” in 2014, plus “Liturgy” and “Fool’s Paradise,” both in 2015. Lead Joffrey ballerina April Daly, who joined the company in 2003, has danced in every Wheeldon ballet presented by the Joffrey, including the roles of Odette/Odile in “Swan Lake” and Julie in “Carousel.”
“Chris knows us. He’s worked with us so much that he knows what our bodies can do,” says Daly, who is now preparing for a number of key “Nutcracker” roles, including the Mother, the Snow soloist, both the Spanish and Arabian ethnic dancers, and the Grand Pas de Deux.
She has been dancing in various “Nutcracker’ productions since she was 11 years old, an experience she shares with many dancers past and present.
“This new Pas de Deux is impressive and definitely athletic,” she explains, when asked to compare it with other well-known renderings of the famous score. But Wheeldon does not intend to create a classical showpiece. “The adagio music was inspired by the death of Tchaikovsky’s sister,” he wrote in response to email questions. “Some hear it as melancholic, I hear it as full of love and passion. In my ‘Nutcracker,’ [the Pas de Deux] is a softer, more romantic interpretation of this glorious music.”
Despite the many Wheeldon pieces company dancers have performed, these roles are the first that are being set on them, Daly explains. “All the others were made on other dancers,” she says, “so we’re all especially excited because these roles are being made on us.”
“Our dancers are ‘all in’ for this premiere,” Wheater confirms. “Everyone is giving 100 percent.”
He knows what it takes, since he was a dancer himself, beginning as a lad in the British Isles; he has appeared in 11 productions of “The Nutcracker.” His roles included a mouse, a party child, a soldier and hot chocolate, the little one who appears in the Spanish dance. “I loved playing Fritz, the naughty brother at the Christmas Eve party, ” he told the crowd assembled for the announcement of the world premiere last spring.
Wheater danced professionally with the London Festival Ballet and the Australian Ballet. At the invitation of Gerald Arpino, co-founder of the company with Robert Joffrey, he danced with the Joffrey for four years and then joined the San Francisco Ballet.
“The setting of the World’s Columbian Exposition will provide the background for a truly magical production,” Wheater declares. The national pavilions at the fair justify the ballet’s sparkling ethnic dances, and the fair was one of the first places where street lights were used extensively, illuminating the boulevards and buildings so they could be used at night.
“When I first came to Chicago, I started reading about the Columbian Exposition,” he continues. “I hadn’t realized what the fair meant to America, to the beautification of other American cities.” In fact, the Chicago event is credited with inspiring Washington, D.C.’s development of the National Mall in 1902.
The artistic director also credits Wheeldon for creating deep and well-drawn characters in the ballet. “This is very layered production,” he says. “We really get to know who these people are. They have a back story and it comes out in their dancing.” In this production, for example, the little girl is not Clara, the daughter of an aristocratic family, but Marie, the daughter of an immigrant worker living in Chicago and working on the construction of the fair. “The audience will see the wonder of the exposition through the eyes of a child,” he says.
The artistic director adds something surprising. “I’ve danced to this music since I was six, but Chris’s choreography makes me hear this music in a new way,” he admits. “I hear things I never noticed before. I don’t know why, but that is what is happening to me as I see this production being created.”
A team of laurel-laden professionals, some direct from Wheeldon’s triumphant “An American in Paris,” has been assembled for this world premiere production, including six-time Tony Award-winning lighting designer Natasha Katz, who also worked on “Frozen,” and Tony Award-winning projection designer Ben Pearcy, who also worked on “Big Fish.” Other members of Wheeldon’s team here are Tony Award-nominated set and costume designer Julian Crouch, and author and illustrator Brian Selznick, Caldecott Medal-winning author of “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” adapted into the Academy Award-winning film “Hugo,” directed by Martin Scorsese.
Obie and Drama Desk award-winning puppeteer and MacArthur Fellowship recipient Basil Twist, who has appeared at the Ravinia Festival, is intimately involved in the production. “Basil and I have worked together to develop several magical moments including mice and the growing of the Christmas tree,” Wheeldon reveals. “There is also a very clever representation of the World’s Fair in Act One.” He pauses and adds, “I don’t want to give too much away though.”
The glorious Tchaikovsky score will be played by the Chicago Philharmonic, under the baton of Scott Speck, music director of The Joffrey Ballet.
“The Nutcracker” will be presented at the Joffrey’s home venue, the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University, in downtown Chicago at 50 E. Congress Parkway, in 27 performances, Dec. 10–30, 2016. Single tickets, priced at $35–$170, are available for purchase at The Joffrey Ballet’s box office in the lobby of Joffrey Tower, 10 E. Randolph St., as well at the Auditorium Theatre box office, online at Joffrey.org, or by telephone at 312-386-8905.
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