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It’s the final curtain for Robert Joffrey’s beloved ‘Nutcracker’

By the time Robert Joffrey’s production of “The Nutcracker” was ready for its world premiere in December, 1987, there was as much (if not more) drama going on behind the scenes as there was innovation on stage. And now, as the company prepares to celebrate the 28th annual — and final — presentation of Joffrey’s uniquely American take on the Russian classic it is worth looking backward. For in December 2016, an all new production of “The Nutcracker,” created by the Tony Award-winning choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, will arrive on stage, with Chicago’s 1893 Columbian Exposition as its backdrop.

Robert Joffrey had dreamed of creating his version of the 19th century ballet for almost 15 years, with visions of a Victorian American family dancing in his head. The Christmas eve party was to be set in the living room of Mayor Stahlbaum and his wife, whose home conjured New York City’s upper class in the 1860s. And the replicas of toys of that period — which Joffrey had begun collecting when he was still a boy himself — were to be stashed under the tree.

But in 1985 Joffrey learned he had AIDS (although he never named his condition), and as ‘The Nutcracker” took shape, several other Joffrey stalwarts — including Gerald Arpino, Scott Barnard and George Verdak —were called on to contribute sections of the choreography. By the time the $1 million dollar production debuted at the Hancher Auditorium in Iowa two years later, Joffrey was too weak to travel. But determined to take a bow with his dancers at its subsequent New York opening at City Center, he was brought on stage in a wheelchair that was quickly removed, and he was supported by his dancers who were stunned to see his dramatic decline.

“The Nutcracker” would turn out to be the very last ballet Joffrey ever made, but it became a staple of the Joffrey rep, introducing countless children to the world of ballet, providing opportunities for talented young students to shine alongside professionals, and reliably boosting box office revenues.

Ashley Wheater, now artistic director of the Joffrey, performed the role of Stahlbaum (as well as the Snow King) in that original production, and he will return to the stage to reprise the role of Stahlbaum at its final performance on Dec. 27.

“Robert Joffrey’s ‘The Nutcracker’ has been an indelible trademark of this company for 28 years,” said Wheater. “One reason it has lasted is its enormous charm, especially the first act party scene, which is Robert Joffrey’s through and through.”

The Joffrey “Nutcracker’s” last hurrah, a 24-performance engagement running Dec. 4 – 27 at the Auditorium Theatre, will feature the Chicago Philharmonic led by Joffrey music director Scott Speck, playing the beloved Tchaikovsky score. And the full Joffrey company will be joined by 118 young dancers from the Chicago area —as Party Girls and Boys, Polichinelles (Mother Ginger’s children), Battle Mice and Mounted Mice, Soldiers, Snow Tree Angels and Dolls. Also on duty will be vocalists from five different local children’s choirs.

The Joffrey Ballet’s ‘Nutcracker’

When: Dec. 4 – 27

Where: Auditorium Theater, 50 E. Congress

Tickets: $32 – $136

Info: (800) 982-2787; http://www.ticketmaster.com

The late choreographer, Robert Joffrey, seen here with the Nutcracker Prince (Mark Goldweber). | Photo: Herbert Migdoll
The late choreographer, Robert Joffrey, seen here with the Nutcracker Prince (Mark Goldweber). | Photo: Herbert Migdoll

Intriguing facts about Joffrey’s “The Nutcracker”:

— Since 1987, there have been approximately 500 performances of this production of the ballet and it has been seen by approximately 996,500 people.

— In addition to Chicago, the production has been performed in New York, Washington, D.C.; Los Angeles, Cleveland, Iowa City, St. Louis, Detroit, and Omaha.

— Over the past four years, the Joffrey’s performances of “The Nutcracker” have accounted for approximately 52 percent of the company’s total season revenue.

— One significant innovation introduced into the ballet after the company moved to Chicago was the inclusion of a physically handicapped child in the party scene. It became a tradition after a handicapped child came to a “Nutcracker” audition and artistic director Gerald Arpino was so inspired by the child’s confidence that he decided to make this a permanent part of the ballet’s casting.

— It was Robert Joffrey’s idea to commission Kermit Love (of “Sesame Street” fame) to create the ballet’s giant Mother Ginger puppet and mouse heads. Love had previously reconstructed Picasso’s original design for the ballet “Parade.”

— The production uses 100 pounds of “snow” in every performance – 50,000 pounds of the stuff over the 28 years of its existence.

The Ginger puppet, the creation of Kermit Love, and a favorite moment in Robert Joffrey’s “The Nutcracker.” | Photo: Cheryl Mann)
The Ginger puppet, the creation of Kermit Love, and a favorite moment in Robert Joffrey’s “The Nutcracker.” | Photo: Cheryl Mann)

Here are some reminiscences from dancers in Joffrey’s “The Nutcracker”:

— Victoria Jaiani and Temur Suluashvili (current stars of the Joffrey): “As young dancers in Tbilisi, Georgia, we both performed in the Yuri Grigorovich version of ‘The Nutcracker’ at the State Ballet of Georgia. In that version, the ‘children’s cast’ was made up of older dancers already on pointe. Clara was called Masha, and she became the Snow Queen and Sugar Plum Fairy in Act II. In the end, instead of taking off in a hot air balloon as in the Joffrey version, Masha (Clara) wakes up and wonders if it was all a dream.”

— Jennifer Goodman (a former Joffrey dancer, now preparing for “Day of the Gypsy,” debuting at the Harris Theater Nov. 21 and 21): “I danced the role of Clara in the Joffrey ‘Nutcracker’ forever – from 1998 until 2007. And then, in my final two years with the company, I danced Sugar Plum. I’d been involved in other productions throughout my childhood, and have since freelanced in several productions nationwide, but the Joffrey version is my favorite. It has such a warm, traditional feel, and beautiful costuming. And it opens up so many different roles to dancers.”

— Yumelia Garcia (a former Joffrey dancer, also starring in “Day of the Gypsy”): “I think dancing ‘The Nutcracker’ was always the most relaxed time for the company. We connected more with our co-workers and let go a little bit. My first time in the ballet was as a child in Caracas, Venezuela. But the Joffrey production is truly magical. When I first joined the company I did many different roles – the Shepherdess and Columbine. Then I performed the Sugar Plum Fairy, which I danced for the first time on opening night in 2010 – a really big accomplishment for me. It’s a role that doesn’t get any easier, and requires stamina and precision, but also softness.”

Yumelia Garcia (partnered by Maura Villanueva) in “The Nutcracker.”
Yumelia Garcia (partnered by Maura Villanueva) in “The Nutcracker.”

— Sarah Stone (a Latin School senior who was part of the children’s contingent in the Joffrey “Nutcracker” for many years): “My first ‘Nutcracker” with the Joffrey was when I was eight. I had auditioned a year before but was told I was too young. Along the way I played many different roles – a doll, a party girl and the Ginger Doll. This production has so many roles for children, and they mesh into the show so beautifully. I always watched from the wings. It was a humbling experience to see dancers like Maia Wilkins up close, and I think the whole thing taught me discipline and respect.” (Stone plans to pursue a career in psychology and medicine, but is now at work on “The Broken Mirrors Project,” with photographs of pre-professional dancers struggling with all the problems that face perfection-seeking artists in their field.)

Sarah Stone (second from right front, next to Gingerbread), as a child performer in Robert Joffrey’s “The Nutcracker.”| Photo courtesy of Sarah Stone
Sarah Stone (second from right front, next to Gingerbread), as a child performer in Robert Joffrey’s “The Nutcracker.”| Photo courtesy of Sarah Stone