Taking A Crack At A New 'Nutcracker': This One's Set At The World's Fair

Dec 10, 2016
Originally published on December 12, 2016 1:56 pm

In the world of ballet, The Nutcracker is sort of a gateway drug. Choreographer Christopher Wheeldon danced his first Nutcracker when he was 11, with London's Royal Ballet. After he moved to the U.S., he danced the Balanchine production with the New York City Ballet.

Wheeldon is the choreographer behind a brand new Nutcracker created for the Joffrey Ballet. Expectations are high for this $4 million production, which premieres Saturday. It replaces the version that founder Robert Joffrey choreographed in 1987 — his last work before he died of AIDS.

"From the business side of the Joffrey, The Nutcracker generates over 50 percent of our annual box office revenue," says Greg Cameron, executive director of the Joffrey. The annual production doesn't just bring in revenue, it also expands audiences. "It helps us introduce them to ballet and then, I think, helps us extend invitations to them to return and see the other kinds of work that we do," he explains.

So, when the Joffrey production grew a bit long in the tooth, the company raised more than $4 million for a new production. Wheeldon says he was game, but he definitely had questions.

"If I'm going to approach a classic like The Nutcracker, how can I put my stamp on it?" he asked. "You know, why is it worthwhile to look at this?"

The key for him was setting the new production in Chicago — specifically at the famous World's Fair of 1893, a period that's actually contemporaneous with the original ballet. Doing research, Wheeldon came across a photograph of a worker's shack, surrounded by towering buildings under construction.

"And that sort of made us think ... perhaps this is maybe the story of an immigrant worker's family, rather than, you know, the child of a wealthy Victorian family," he says.

So, Wheeldon's Nutcracker — with a new scenario by children's book author Brian Selznick — focuses on Polish immigrants.

"The largest innovation in this production is its setting ..." Wheeldon explains. "The idea that it's a poor family, that it focuses on a community that sort of comes together at Christmas and very much makes do with what it has."

It comes with a large cast, including some 50 professional dancers and more than 100 kids. Principal ballerina Victoria Jaiani danced her first Nutcracker in Tblisi, Georgia when she was 11. She's been with the company for 14 years and danced many roles in Joffrey's Nutcracker, including the Sugar Plum Fairy. This year, she's doing the equivalent part, but says Wheeldon has added a psychological dimension.

"Here we have a chance to build a story — it has a bit more depth, in my perspective, and meaning," Jaiani says. "So, the first act I play the sculptress, also single parent to Marie and Fritz [who in this production is called Franz]. She is sculpting one of the biggest sculptures of the World's Fair in Chicago. And then, in the second act, in Marie's imagination, it's in her dream that her mom becomes a golden statue herself."

The World's Fair setting seems a natural fit for the second act where the magical Drosselmayer character, here named the Impresario, takes young Marie on a tour of the fair. (Wheeldon describes him as a cross between architect Daniel Burnham, Nikola Tesla and P.T. Barnum.)

"It seemed like a no-brainer in a way," Wheeldon says, "because the international pavilions at the World's Fair are kind of the perfect setting for the, sort of, standard national dances of the second act."

Despite the fresh take, Wheeldon's making sure his production delivers what's expected of a Nutcracker.

"We follow the structure of the story quite closely," he says, "and the things that are dictated by the score — like the Christmas tree growing, the land of the snow, the Waltz of the Snowflakes — all of those are still very much in this production."

And, despite the high price tag, the Joffrey's executive director Greg Cameron feels it's worth every penny of the $4 million.

"It certainly is a very, very sound investment for the Joffrey, given that we have a 10-year license with the work — it is something that we will do every year," Cameron says.

And he hopes the production can tour and be taped, so people outside Chicago can experience it, as well.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Ballet companies all over the country are putting on "The Nutcracker." For most of these companies, this holiday classic helps them to stay in business. In Chicago, a new $4 million production for the Joffrey Ballet premieres tonight and expectations are high, as our man Jeff Lunden reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF "THE NUTCRACKER" BALLET)

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: If this music by Tchaikovsky gives you visions of sugar plum fairies, you're not alone. For many ballet fans, and practically every ballet dancer, "The Nutcracker" is kind of the gateway drug. Christopher Wheeldon danced his first "Nutcracker" when he was 11, with London's Royal Ballet.

(SOUNDBITE OF "THE NUTCRACKER" BALLET)

CHRISTOPHER WHEELDON: And I was selected to be one of the kids in that production. And then I, you know, continued dancing in "The Nutcracker" for my years as a dancer, especially moving to America. So as a dancer with the New York City Ballet, I danced in the Balanchine production for the years that I was there.

LUNDEN: Wheeldon is now a choreographer. And he's created a brand new "Nutcracker" for the Joffrey Ballet. It replaces the work that founder Robert Joffrey choreographed in 1987 - his last before he died of AIDS.

GREG CAMERON: From the business side of the Joffrey, "The Nutcracker" generates over 50 percent of our annual box office revenue.

LUNDEN: Greg Cameron is the Joffrey's executive director. He says the annual production doesn't just bring in revenue. It expands audiences.

CAMERON: It helps us introduce them to ballet, and then, I think, helps us extend invitations to them to return and see the other kinds of work that we do.

(SOUNDBITE OF "THE NUTCRACKER" BALLET)

LUNDEN: So when the Joffrey production grew a little bit long in the tooth, the company raised more than $4 million for a new production. Christopher Wheeldon says he was game but definitely had questions.

WHEELDON: You know, if I'm going to approach a classic like "The Nutcracker," how can I put my stamp on it? You know, why is it worthwhile to look at this?

LUNDEN: The key for him was setting the new production in Chicago, specifically at the famous World's Fair of 1893, a period that's actually contemporaneous with the original ballet. He and his team began to do research and came across...

WHEELDON: One photograph, in particular, of a worker's shack sitting under the towering skeletal sort of construction of the buildings going up. And that sort of made us think about, oh, perhaps, this is maybe the story of an immigrant worker's family rather than, you know, the child of a wealthy Victorian family.

(SOUNDBITE OF "THE NUTCRACKER" BALLET)

LUNDEN: So Wheeldon's "Nutcracker" - with a new scenario by children's book author Brian Selznick - focuses on Polish immigrants.

WHEELDON: The largest innovation in this production is its setting, is the idea that it's a poor family, that it focuses on a community that sort of comes together at Christmas and very much makes do with what it has.

LUNDEN: And it has a big cast, some 50 professional dancers and more than 100 kids. Principal ballerina Victoria Jaiani danced her first "Nutcracker" in Tbilisi, Georgia, when she was 11. She's been with the company for 14 years and danced many roles in Joffrey's "Nutcracker," including the Sugar Plum Fairy. This year, she's doing the equivalent part but says Christopher Wheeldon has added psychological dimension.

VICTORIA JAIANI: Here we have a chance to build a story. It has a bit more depth, in my perspective, and meaning. So the first act I play the sculptress, also a single parent to Marie and Fritz. She is sculpting one of the biggest sculptures of the World's Fair in Chicago. And then, in the second act, in Marie's imagination, it's in her dream that her mom becomes a golden statue herself.

(SOUNDBITE OF "THE NUTCRACKER" BALLET)

LUNDEN: And the World's Fair setting seems a natural fit for the second act with the magical Drosselmeyer character, here called the Impresario, takes young Marie on a tour of the fair.

WHEELDON: It seemed like a no-brainer in a way because the (laughter) - the international pavilions at the World's Fair are kind of the perfect setting for the sort of standard national dances of the second act.

(SOUNDBITE OF "THE NUTCRACKER" BALLET)

LUNDEN: Christopher Wheeldon says despite the fresh take, he's making sure his production delivers what's expected of a "Nutcracker."

WHEELDON: We follow the structure of the story quite closely and the things that are dictated by the score, like the Christmas tree growing, "The Land Of The Snow," "The Waltz Of The Snowflakes," all of those are still very much in this production.

(SOUNDBITE OF "THE NUTCRACKER" BALLET)

LUNDEN: And despite the high price tag, the Joffrey's executive director, Greg Cameron, feels it's worth every penny of the $4 million.

And he hopes the production can tour and be taped so people outside Chicago can experience it as well. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.