Joffrey Ballet’s Reimagined ‘Nutcracker’ Inspired by Chicago History

Ten years in the making, the Joffrey Ballet’s new “Nutcracker” tells the story of a city – our city. An all-star creative team joined forces with the athletic dancers of the Joffrey for a Chicago-centric take on the holiday classic.

We visited them as they prepared to journey back to the Columbian Exposition of 1893, when Chicago was still a boom town at the edge of the prairie – a town about to host the World’s Fair.

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  • (Cheryl Mann / Joffrey Ballet)

    (Cheryl Mann / Joffrey Ballet)

  • (Cheryl Mann / Joffrey Ballet)

    (Cheryl Mann / Joffrey Ballet)

  • (Cheryl Mann / Joffrey Ballet)

    (Cheryl Mann / Joffrey Ballet)

  • (Cheryl Mann / Joffrey Ballet)

    (Cheryl Mann / Joffrey Ballet)

  • (Cheryl Mann / Joffrey Ballet)

    (Cheryl Mann / Joffrey Ballet)

  • (Cheryl Mann / Joffrey Ballet)

    (Cheryl Mann / Joffrey Ballet)

  • (Cheryl Mann / Joffrey Ballet)

    (Cheryl Mann / Joffrey Ballet)

  • (Cheryl Mann / Joffrey Ballet)

    (Cheryl Mann / Joffrey Ballet)

  • (Cheryl Mann / Joffrey Ballet)

    (Cheryl Mann / Joffrey Ballet)

Phil Ponce: It’s the calm before the storm. With less than one month before opening night, dancers await their turn to rehearse.

They practice under the watchful eye of Christopher Wheeldon, a Tony Award- winning choreographer charged with completely reinventing the “Nutcracker.”

In other parts of the building, costumes are fitted, wigs are made and props are prepped.

Julian Crouch, set and costume designer: I would say we’re in the 11th hour of the project and the project is 12 hours long. [Laughs]

It’s a big team and there’s a lot of fantastic, creative people working on it. Now we just have to tie it together and see what we have.

Ellie Cotey, wardrobe head: We’re down to the wire, working all the time to finish up the last couple of things, or not the last couple things, to finish a lot of things in the last couple of days.

Ponce: All of these high-flying artists were then off to Iowa, where they spent the Thanksgiving holiday performing an out-of-town tryout before returning to the city that serves as the newly reimagined setting.

We asked the creative team about their big idea.

Christopher Wheeldon, choreographer: We started to sort of put our heads together and figure out a way to make this production specific to Chicago, specific to the city, really something that the dancers could feel like it’s just more than the steps, that it’s actually the environment and the place that they live in that is giving the inspiration for this production, so we chose the time of the great Columbian Exposition, the 1893 World’s Fair.

It is very much an homage to the city and to a time that of course was a great time of change here in Chicago.

Ponce: The new narrative was devised by Brian Selznick, the best-selling author of “The Invention of Hugo Cabret,” which became an Oscar-winning movie by Martin Scorsese.

We asked the artistic director of the Joffrey: Why tamper with a “Nutcracker” that has been successful for them since 1987?

Ashley Wheater, artistic director of Joffrey Ballet: The reason for a new “Nutcracker” was necessity and opportunity. I think the necessity was, we had a production that was nearly 30 years old. The scenic elements were completely falling apart–I mean we lost the paint on nearly all the drops so we were masking it with great lighting.

The costumes were threadbare, even though we had remade some of them, but you know it came down to “we need to do a new production.” The opportunity was: What would the ‘Nutcracker’ look like today in the hands of a really talented choreographer like Christopher Wheeldon, who’s never done a “Nutcracker.”

Ponce: On opening night at the Auditorium Theatre, the new “Nutcracker” takes flight for the first time.

Crouch: But the things that people expect from the Nutcracker are definitely in there.

Christopher WheeldonChristopher Wheeldon

Wheeldon: It’s as much Christmas spectacle as it is ballet, so the audience need to be wowed by what they see on stage visually.

We based some of the design for Act 2 on the Louis Sullivan Golden Door, a beautiful Moroccan-style golden archways on this huge door, and of course Louis Sullivan also was the architect of the Auditorium Theatre so those golden arches kind of reflect the great curved ceiling of the theater as well.

Really it was this one photograph of a little wooden shack with these towering, skeletal scaffolding structures of the buildings going up, and that was sort of the impetus for the idea that, rather than setting it in a wealthy Victorian home, why not set it in the shack of a construction worker during this time.

Wheater: Chris has taken a story and he’s threaded it through the entire work.

Ashley WheaterAshley Wheater

You hear Tchaikovsky’s music in a different way. It’s a different perspective, because it’s about–I think that what Chris has shown us is the humanity that we each have in ourselves, and how do we as people gather together and celebrate together and look after each other and love each other. So there are many kind of moral values to this production. It’s not all about wealth and sugar.

If you think you’ve seen the “Nutcracker,” I say come and see this one.

More on this story

Christopher Wheeldon’s “Nutcraker” is on stage at the Auditorium Theatre through Dec. 30. For tickets and more information, visit the Joffrey’s website.

Note: This story originally aired on “Chicago Tonight” on Dec. 12.


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