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Christopher Wheeldon to choreograph new ‘Nutcracker’ for Joffrey Ballet

There is big news from the Joffrey Ballet. A wholly new production of “The Nutcracker” is in the works for December 2016, and it is to be created by Christopher Wheeldon. The internationally acclaimed choreographer, whose production of “Swan Lake” proved to be a box office bonanza for the Joffrey earlier this season, will be making his Broadway directorial debut this spring with the highly anticipated new musical, “An American in Paris,” a hit when it debuted in Paris earlier this winter.

Wheeldon’s “Nutcracker” will replace the much-beloved edition of the holiday classic created in 1987 by Robert Joffrey (who would be severely weakened by AIDS during the process) in collaboration with Gerald Arpino and others. The Joffrey version, which will have its “farewell season” at the Auditorium Theatre at the end of this year, was distinguished by its break from the original European backdrop, replaced by an opening party scene that evoked a 19th century, Victorian era, American-style home, complete with social dancing in the parlor.

While Joffrey’s “Nutcracker” held fast to the essential story, and to the traditional elements of  the Snow Queen, Sugar Plum Fairy, animated dolls, and pugnacious mice and tin soldiers, it featured replicas of Victorian era American toys and a giant Jim Henson puppet. Wheeldon’s version might well be set in Chicago, although no further details have been disclosed.

The announcement of the new “Nutcracker” comes at a particularly exciting time for the Joffrey, which currently is making a splash with its audacious “Unique Voices” program running through Feb. 22 at the Auditorium. The company also has announced its plans for the 2015-2016 season, which will be a celebration of its 60th anniversary as one of this country’s most formidable ballet troupes.

Long before the old “Nutcracker” takes its final bow and the new “Nutcracker” arrives on the Auditorium stage there will be much to savor, including, for the third year in a row, an “additional” single weekend program (Sept. 16-20) titled “Millennials.” The program will showcase world premieres by two of this country’s most promising “next generation” choreographic talents: Annabelle Lopez Ochoa (whose 22-minute, as yet untitled work, will feature 20 dancers in a series of ensembles set to Michael Gordon’s “Weather One”), and Myles Thatcher (a dancer and choreographer with the San Francisco Ballet, whose new work will be set to music by Steve Reich). It also will feature the Joffrey premiere of  Wheeldon’s “Fool’s Paradise,” a piece set to music by Joby Talbot, in which the dancers’ bodies form a series of living sculptures as flower petals rain down.

In a prepared statement, Ashley Wheater, the Joffrey’s artistic director, said: “During the season we will celebrate the evolution of the company and its many landmarks. We will bring John Neumeier’s ‘Sylvia’ to the American audience for the first time. We will introduce three world premiere works by some of today’s most exciting choreographers. And after 29 memorable years, we will retire Robert Joffrey’s ‘The Nutcracker,’ paying tribute to its enduring legacy with one final series of performances, while also looking ahead to the 2016 premiere of Christopher Wheeldon’s magical new ‘Nutcracker.’ In the spring, we will revive Frederick Ashton’s ‘Cinderella,’ a favorite of families around the world.”

Here is the rundown for the Joffrey’s 2015-16 subscription season:

Oct. 14-25, 2015: The North American premiere of “Sylvia,” a full length story ballet by the internationally acclaimed, Milwaukee-born choreographer John Neumeier, who has led Germany’s Hamburg Ballet since 1973. Set to the music of Léo Delibes, Neumeier has taken this 19th century classic about the mythic Greek huntress (the first ballet to feature a strong female character) and focused on the title character who, as one critic has described it, “is at the crossroads between adolescence and womanhood … torn between strength and vulnerability … aggressiveness and tenderness.” Neumeier collaborated with Greek painter Yannis Kokkos on the set.

Silvia Azzoni in John Neumeier's Sylvia. (Photo: Holger Badekow /Hamburg Ballett ©

Silvia Azzoni in John Neumeier’s Sylvia. | Holger Badekow /Hamburg Ballett ©

Feb. 10-21, 2016: This mixed repertory winter program, under the umbrella title “Bold Moves,” will feature a world premiere by British choreographer Ashley Page, known for his daring collaborations with visual artists and contemporary composers (he will set his piece to Thomas Ades’ violin concerto, “Concentric Paths”). It will be paired with the return of two popular works from the Joffrey repertoire: Yuri Possokhov’s “RAkU,” inspired by a true story about a Japanese emperor, his wife, and a jealous monk, set to a dazzling score by Shinji Eshima, and Jiri Kylian’s haunting “Forgotten Land, inspired by an Edvard Munch painting of women on a beach staring out at the sea, and set to Benjamin Britten’s “Sinfonia da Requiem.”

Yuri Possokhov's "RAkU," performed by the joffrey ballet. (Photo: Cheryl Mann)

Yuri Possokhov’s “RAkU,” performed by the joffrey ballet. | Photo by Cheryl Mann

April 20-May 1, 2016: A return of “Cinderella,” the full-length fairy-tale ballet by the English master, Frederick Ashton, set to Sergei Prokofiev’s score. Last performed by the Joffrey in 2010, it features elaborate sets and costumes and moments of great humor.

All performances will take place at the Joffrey’s home venue, the Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress. And all will feature live music performed by the Chicago Philharmonic conducted by Scott Speck, music director of the Joffrey Ballet.

Three-program subscriptions (which do not include the September engagement or “The Nutcracker”) begin at $84. Subscriptions will go on sale Feb. 18. Call (312) 386-8905 or visit joffrey.org. Subscribers have the option to add on the September engagement at 50 percent off the single ticket price.

Single tickets ($32-$170) will go on sale June 2 for the September performances; for all other programs they will be available starting Aug. 1.  ingle tickets to “The Nutcracker” are $32-$136. Call (800) 982-2787 or visit ticketmaster.com.

NOTE: The Joffrey’s 60th anniversary Gala, set for April 15, 2016, will make performance-only tickets available for the first time. The hourlong performance will be dedicated to Joffrey founders Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino and will feature Arpino’s exquisite “Round of Angels,” to the music of Gustav Mahler, as well his ballet-with-a-rock-band, “Trinity.”