In 1987, when choreographer Robert Joffrey created his version of “The Nutcracker” for the Joffrey Ballet, he broke ground by moving the story from its traditional European backdrop to the home of an upper-class Victorian American family in New York, circa 1860, and incorporating everything from a Virginia reel-style dance for the adults at the Christmas eve party, to replicas of toys of the period. It was an “American” production for the company he always described as quintessentially American.
The Joffrey Ballet in ‘The Nutcracker’
When: Dec. 10 – 30
Where: Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress
Tickets: $35 – $170
Now, three decades later, if you ask the British-bred, Tony Award-winning choreographer Christopher Wheeldon about the driving principal behind his new $4 million production of “The Nutcracker” for the Joffrey — which will have its world premiere Dec. 10 – 30 at the Auditorium Theatre — he explains it this way:
“Most “Nutcrackers” are about well-off children who already have a whole lot of toys and are about to get even more. I wanted to explore more complex storytelling — holding on to the Tchaikovsky score, which I love, and all the things that audiences expect to have happen in this ballet — from the magical growth of the tree, to the snow, to the battle between the mice and the soldiers. But I also wanted it to have a very specific Chicago story behind it, with a new romantic twist. And I wanted the central focus to be on how children — without the usual aristocratic manners, and without much in terms of material things — use their imagination.”
“‘The Nutcracker,’ is not as much of a tradition in the U.K. as it is in the United States,” said Wheeldon, 43, who, nevertheless, saw his first production of the ballet at the age of seven, began studying ballet a year later, entered the Royal Ballet School at 11, and almost immediately played a little soldier and page boy in Sir Peter Wright’s production of the classic. (He soon moved on to play the mischievous young brother, Fritz, and later, after joining the New York City Ballet, danced a number of different roles in George Balanchine’s version of the work.)
When Wheeldon and the Joffrey’s artistic director, Ashley Wheater (another Royal Ballet alum), began discussing the company’s new “Nutcracker,” they grabbed hold of the idea of setting the ballet at the legendary Columbian Exposition — the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 that not only celebrated the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the New World, but put this city on the international map.
They had both read Erik Larson’s 2003 bestseller, “The Devil in the White City,” and they sensed the Exposition (“minus the serial murderer,” as Wheeldon quipped), was exactly the right magical environment against which the ballet could be set, with the construction of the fair seen though a child’s eye. The fact that the Joffrey’s home stage, the landmark Auditorium Theatre, was completed in 1889, made the whole thing seem even more ideal.
They proceeded to recruit set and costume designer Julian Crouch, who introduced Wheeldon to writer-illustrator Brian Selznick (the Caldecott Medal Award-winning author of “The Invention of Hugo Cabret”), and they were off and running.
“When I got the call from Chris I immediately panicked,” Selznick confessed. “I really had no relationship to the ballet aside from the parts of the music that are ingrained in everyone’s head, and the overall idea of it that is in our DNA. My first exposure to the work in any form was as an adult, when I saw ‘The Hard Nut’ [Mark Morris’ zany take on the story]. So I not only immediately bought a ticket to see Chris’ hit Broadway show, ‘An American in Paris,’ but also went on to watch every version of ‘The Nutcracker’ available online, and to read the original version of the story by E.T.A. Hoffmann.”
“By the most remarkable coincidence, my husband is a historian who wrote a book about world’s fairs, and we have a collection of World’s Fair memorabilia,” Selznick explained. “And, a few weeks after Chris’ call, my 16-year-old nephew gave us a gift he found in an antique store — the original children’s guide to the 1893 Exposition, published in 1892 as a sort of preview. It was a treasure trove.”
But there was a dilemma to solve: The fair ran from May 1 to Oct. 30, 1893, while the story had to unfold on a snowy Christmas eve.
“We could either ignore history, or set the story in the post-fair ruins, or set it five months before the fair opens, while it was under construction. We chose the latter. We also found a photograph of what looked like a wooden worker’s shack on the fairgrounds, and that became our touchstone. The fair was built by many immigrant laborers, especially Poles, and we envisioned this shack as the place in which one of the many female sculptors for the fair worked. She is a single mother with a young daughter, Marie, and a son, and the ballet is Marie’s dream version of the fair. We also reimagined two of the ballet’s characters to create an element of romance, with the sculptress more or less taking over what is usually the Sugar Plum Fairy role, while Drosselmeyer, the magician, has been renamed The Great Impresario.” (And as Wheeldon describes him, he is “part Daniel Burnham, the visionary urban designer who planned the fair, along with a bit of P.T. Barnum and Nikolai Tesla, that mad scientist of electricity.”)
Asked what he learned from directing and choreographing “An American in Paris,” Wheeldon said: “I like richly detailed scenes that make your eye go to the right place, and I like getting fully committed performances from everyone on the stage, even those in a crowd scene. Watching ‘Hamilton’ in Chicago recently I also was reminded of how crucial lighting can be, and we are lucky to have [six-time Tony Award-winning] lighting designer Natasha Katz on board.”
Wheeldon also is lucky to have a team that includes Crouch (who had collaborated with the choreographer on his “Cinderella” for the San Francisco Ballet), puppeteer and MacArthur Fellowship recipient Basil Twist, and projection designer Ben Pearcy (who worked on “An American in Paris”).
The World’s Fair covered more than 600 acres, featured nearly 200 new buildings (most of them temporary, with the what is now the Museum of Science and Industry an exception), and included canals and lagoons, as well as a slew of international pavilions. This gave Crouch a great deal to work with, including “images of the golden Columbia statue, the boats on the lagoon, the original Ferris Wheel and the use of electric lights at night. And there were the dozens of international pavilions, too, so there is now a reason for the dances of the sweets from Spain, and Arabia and China, and all the rest.” (The Waltz of the Flowers is now envisioned as “Fair visitors who dance to Tchaikovsky’s music.”)
A monumental undertaking, the Joffrey’s new “Nutcracker” has been rehearsed with five casts who will alternate during the run of 27 performances. There also will be two casts of children (about 40 in each) — a crucial element that both draws young audiences into what is often their first experience of a grand-scale ballet, while also giving student dancers an opportunity to experience “the real thing.”
And not to be forgotten amidst all this talent is Basil Twist.
“I’m like the spice on top of the whole confection,” said the puppeteer. “My definition of puppetry is simply that something is being animated — brought to life with silk or shadows, and with the dancers animating objects.”
Twist has created the ballet’s all important mice — 22 of them, each a bit different, and made of wood, high-density foam and a bit of rubber.
As Wheeldon recounted: “Basil sent us a box of the finished creatures from New York, and we were all just amazed at how fantastic they were when we unwrapped them.”