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Joffrey assembles stellar team to craft its new ‘Nutcracker’

Ashley Wheater (from left), artistic director of the Joffrey Ballet, with choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, and author Brain Selznick enjoy the snow confetti at the Auditorium Theatre after announcing the artistic team for the company's newT production of "The Nutcracker." (Photo: Kelly Wenzel)

If you are going to re-invent “The Nutcracker” — a ballet company repertory staple that serves not only as an all-important introduction to the art for young audiences, but also as a dependable cash cow — you had better have a world-class creative team in place. And the Joffrey Ballet, led by artistic director Ashley Wheater and executive director Greg Cameron, has unquestionably assembled just such a collection of talents, most of whom gathered on the stage of the Auditorium Theatre on Monday to herald their upcoming project, which will debut at that landmark venue Dec. 10-30.

It has been more than a year since the Joffrey announced it would be retiring the beloved version of the classic devised by Robert Joffrey nearly three decades ago, and replacing it with a totally new version created by Christopher Wheeldon, the internationally acclaimed, British-bred, Tony Award-winning choreographer who both directed and choreographed the current hit Broadway musical “An American in Paris.”

Now, the stellar list of his collaborators for this $4 million production (of which $3 million already has been raised) has been named. They include: set and costume designer Julian Crouch (whose credits range from the ballet and opera stage to Tony Award-nominated work on Broadway); author and illustrator Brian Selznick (the Caldecott Medal Award winner for “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” the book adapted into the Academy Award-winning film “Hugo,” directed by Martin Scorsese); puppeteer Basil Twist, an Obie and Drama Desk award winner and a recipient of the MacArthur Fellowship; five-time Tony Award-winning lighting designer Natasha Katz (“An American in Paris,” “Once”) and Tony Award-winning projection designer Ben Pearcy (“An American in Paris”).

In a chat prior to Monday’s announcement, Wheeldon said he wanted to hold on to a few secrets about his new production, which is still in its most embryonic stage. But he spoke openly about the overall shape of the work that would replace Robert Joffrey’s Victorian-era Americana-style edition of the classic story ballet, considered innovative in its time.

A visual for the Joffrey Ballet's new production of Christopher Wheeldon's "The Nutcracker," to debut at the Aufitorium Theatre, Dec. 10-30. (Photo: Courtesy of the Joffrey Ballet)

A visual for the Joffrey Ballet’s new production of Christopher Wheeldon’s “The Nutcracker,” to debut at the Aufitorium Theatre, Dec. 10-30. (Photo: Courtesy of the Joffrey Ballet)

“Ashley [Wheater, the Joffrey’s artistic director] and I have talked about a new ‘Nutcracker” for many years, even before he arrived at the Joffrey,” said Wheeldon. “Along with ‘Swan Lake’ [whose audacious re-imagining by Wheeldon was performed by the Joffrey in 2014], it has my favorite Tchaikovsky score. Now the idea is to give the story a very particular Chicago connection, setting it during the construction of the city’s fabled 1893 World’s Fair.”

For background, Wheeldon read Erik Larson’s 2003 bestseller “The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America” — a non-fiction book (written in novelistic style) about the Columbian Exposition, a fair that celebrated  the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of the Americas and also signaled the rebirth of this city in the wake of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

Laughing as he makes clear he will “not be going down the serial killer route” that is part of Larson’s account, he noted: “The Fair had many performers and pavilions from different countries, which ties in nicely to the Kingdom of Sweets [which traditionally features Spanish, Russian and Arabian variations].”

“There are certain things people expect with ‘The Nutcracker,’ so we will not be throwing the baby out with the bathwater,” Wheeldon added. “We’ll be sticking close to the Tchaikovsky score, with any possible musical additions still under discussion. And of course this must be a magical Christmas story.

“But in doing research, one of the most fascinating things I discovered was that many of the big sculptures in the Exposition were created by women. So instead of having the story unfold in the usual large, privileged household full of guests and elaborate presents, this ‘Nutcracker’ will be about a female sculptor – an immigrant worker who, along with her daughter, Marie, lives and works in a small cottage on the fairgrounds. [Designer] Julian Crouch found wonderful old photos of the White City, and along with the Arcadian majesty of the place he will be adding some pops of color. [Puppeteer] Basil Twist will create magic I can’t disclose for the party scene, and also will be helping us with the beloved Christmas tree.”

Selznick, admitting he had to give himself a crash course in all things “Nutcracker” in recent months, already was well-prepared to deal with the Exposition noting that he “is a long-time collector of World’s Fair memorabilia,” and had even been given an original book from the Fair as a gift from his nephew.

The goal for this “Nutcracker,” as Wheeldon explained it, “is to find as many possible imaginative transformations as possible, with totally new choreography that will push the boundaries of classical dance to suggest that magical moment when Chicago transformed into a beacon of wonder.”

April Daly, a leading Joffrey dancer who has worked on six previous Wheeldon pieces performed by the company, spoke of how excited she was to have Wheeldon set an original work on the company. And she noted: “For dancers, ‘The Nutcracker’ is a time-frame for our careers. For audiences it is a gateway into our art form. I was 11 when I first appeared in a production, and over the years I worked my way up to dancing the Sugar Plum Fairy. Having Christopher create this new version for us is a dream come true.”

Christopher-Wheeldon-in-Swan-Lake-Rehearsal_Photo-by-Cheryl-Mann

Wheeldon, who is overseeing the first national tour of “An American in Paris” (which will visit Chicago but has not yet announced the dates), and who has just finished a new work for the New York City Ballet (“American Rhapsody,” set to the music of George Gershwin, opens May 4), plans to catch the Joffrey’s spring production of “Cinderella” here (May 11-22), in order to see a number of new dancers who joined the company after “Swan Lake.” Rehearsals will begin in August, and Wheeldon, who learned the value of previews when working on Broadway, said he is thrilled that “Nutcracker” will have a modest equivalent when it plays at the University of Iowa’s new Hancher Auditorium, Dec. 1–4.

Single tickets for Wheeldon’s “The Nutcracker” are now available and can be purchased at the Joffrey’s box office at 10 E. Randolph, at the Auditorium Theatre box office at 50 E. Congress, by phone at (312) 386-8905, or online at joffrey.org/nutcracker.