After nearly three decades as one of Chicago’s sturdiest Christmas traditions, the Joffrey Ballet’s Nutcracker is getting a reboot this holiday season. Company cofounder Robert Joffrey’s production, staged annually since 1987, was retired following the 2015 season.
In its place for 2016: a newly commissioned reimagining created by award-winning choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, co-conceived with children’s book author and Caldecott Medal honoree Brian Selznick. Joffrey artistic director Ashley Wheater commissioned Wheeldon (whose revamping of another Tchaikovsky classic, Swan Lake, was performed by the Joffrey in 2014) to rethink the piece for the evolving company.
“Today’s dancers have different training and skills,” says Wheater. “Stagecraft and technology have advanced. Audiences expect stories to be told in fresh ways. Our previous Nutcracker served the Joffrey for 29 years. Costumes and scenery were in tatters. We depended more and more upon careful lighting to mask the wrinkles. These conditions mandated a new production. Christopher Wheeldon and I began discussions about this project nearly 10 years ago.”
Wheeldon’s Nutcracker is set in Chicago, against the backdrop of the 1893 World’s Fair. The choreographer, who won a Tony Award in 2015 for his Broadway staging of An American in Paris, has assembled a team of designers with extensive theatrical backgrounds of their own, including six-time Tony-winning lighting designer Natasha Katz, scenic and costume designer Julian Crouch (Shockheaded Peter, Hedwig and the Angry Inch) and innovative puppeteer and MacArthur Foundation genius Basil Twist.
“Most Nutcrackers follow the fantasy journey of an affluent girl celebrating a bountiful Christmas,” says Wheater. “Our Nutcracker is set in the modest home of an immigrant mother and her children, finding their place in a new country. The ‘destination’ of Marie’s journey is a community of friends and family, rather than a land of sweets.”