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A New Nutcracker for the Joffrey

Christopher Wheeldon creates a working-class holiday ballet.

Christopher Wheeldon at the Joffrey. PC Quinn Wharton

Twelve-year-old Christopher Wheeldon was annoyed. He had been cast as Fritz in Sir Peter Wright’s Nutcracker at The Royal Ballet, but on this particular night in 1985, another boy was playing the role and Wheeldon was supposed to be one of the anonymous party boys. Miffed that he wasn’t in the spotlight, he upstaged Fritz (“Let’s just say I made myself as visible as Fritz”) and later caught a scolding from Sir Peter.

So goes the story that Wheeldon tells about his first run-in with a Nutcracker choreographer. Now he’s creating his own Nutcracker, which has been under discussion for years with Ashley Wheater, artistic director of the Joffrey Ballet. Although the 1987 Joffrey/Gerald Arpino version was beloved, Wheater felt it was time for a more contemporary, innovative Nutcracker. With the help of writer Brian Selznick (author of the book that the hit movie Hugo is based on) and a team of award-winning designers, including a projectionist, Wheeldon is reenvisioning the Stahlbaums as a working-class, immigrant family.

“It has always bothered me that the Nutcracker is about the child who has everything,” Wheeldon says, “especially in this day and age and in a city like Chicago.” He was determined to make his Nutcracker “relatable to kids who don’t have everything.” The mother is a sculptor for the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. Sixty children from the Joffrey Academy of Dance will play mice, soldiers, tiny snowflakes, dancing walnuts and street kids—“ragamuffins” who play on the construction site and fantasize about visiting the World’s Fair.

Wheeldon and his team came up with this concept almost two years ago, so it wasn’t triggered by the current plight of refugees or widespread anti-immigrant feeling. “But,” says Wheeldon, “it’s certainly aligned with what’s going on in the world and particularly in this country at the moment.”

Wheeldon has worked with the Joffrey dancers before. “They’re theatrical, they like to tell a story,” he says. “They’re also very American: They have a fabulous work ethic; they attack movement; and they’re equally as strong in contemporary work. They certainly don’t seem to buckle under the pressure of my demands.”

For the Sugar Plum pas de deux, he is going with a melancholy note in the music. He learned that Tchaikovsky’s sister was dying when he wrote it. “It made me want to treat that music in a more human way, rather than making it into a classical showpiece.” When asked what the hardest section to choreograph was, he answers: “Funnily enough, the ‘Waltz of the Flowers.’ I totally adore the Balanchine ‘Flowers’; it’s such an artful use of that music. What makes it quite a challenge is finding a fresh response to it.”

Wheeldon has been so successful as a storyteller—in his Cinderella, The Winter’s Tale and An American in Paris—that you’d think creating a narrative is now second nature. But for Nutcracker, he says, “you’re getting new audiences and you don’t want to leave them completely baffled. These are things I’m still figuring out.”

The new production holds previews at the Hancher Auditorium in Iowa City Dec. 1–4, then comes to the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago Dec. 10–30. 

Get Nutty

Joffrey’s isn’t the only new Nutcracker. Check out these other fresh takes.

Houston Ballet

Artistic director Stanton Welch is using Ben Stevenson’s much-loved version as a leaping-off point for his new production. This Nutcracker promises to be massive, involving students from all levels of Houston Ballet Academy alongside the company. Nov. 25–Dec. 27. houstonballet.org.

Will Tuckett’s Nutcracker

In an unexpected twist, this winter Londoners will experience what is being billed as “the world’s first immersive ballet.” A temporary structure in Wembley Park will house the production, where audience members will be able to engage with the characters, played by ballet dancers and actors, and wander through the fairy tale.  Nov. 30–Jan. 8. nutcrackershow.com. [Editor's note: This production was canceled after one performance due to financial constraints.] 

Charlotte Ballet

Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux’s Nutcracker is getting a makeover with new costumes and sets for the artistic director’s final season leading Charlotte Ballet. Dec. 3–23. charlotteballet.org.

Ballet Hawaii

Septime Webre is creating his second Nutcracker, and this time it’s Hawaiian-themed, from the variations and characters to Victorian-inspired costumes. The star-studded cast includes New York City Ballet’s Megan Fairchild and Joaquin De Luz. Dec. 16–18. ballethawaii.org.

—Courtney Escoyne

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