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.
Joffrey’s isn’t the only new Nutcracker. Check out these other fresh takes.
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.]
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.
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.
It is a great tragedy for dance history that iconic ballet partnerships like Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev or Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov weren't able to document their backstage shenanigans on social media. (Okay, maybe not a great tragedy, but you have to admit that you're curious.)
Lucky for us, that isn't the case with today's star dancers—like American Ballet Theatre principal dancers Isabella Boylston and James Whiteside, aka The Cindies. These two aren't just onstage partners. They're serious #BestieGoals. Our evidence, as documented on Instagram, is as follows:
-Hey. U up?
-Ya. I'm at the ballet.
-Oh ok. Talk later.
-Nah, it's cool, it's a slow part right now.
Nope, it's not cool. Put your phone away. In the hushed darkness of an auditorium, light explodes from that screen like shrapnel, blasting those around you out of their viewing experience.
2017 felt like we were living the Upside Down of the popular Netflix series "Stranger Things." From Donald Trump becoming president, to the sexual harassment scandals that ricocheted into the ballet world, everything we thought we knew was turned on its head.
Yet while the deconstruction of institutional paradigms is frightening, it also presents an unprecedented opportunity for redesign.
Ballet, much like our political parties, seems to be stuck in an antiquated format that's long overdue for a makeover. With the world changing at lightning speed, if ballet wants to survive it will have to undergo a radical reimagining. But what would that look like?
Dear dancers of the New York City Ballet,
I realize that you are scared because the future of the New York City Ballet is uncertain; you don't know who will man the ship, and your career that you've worked your entire life for feels under attack.
On social media some of you alluded to the idea that Peter Martins' downfall is a result of the times; a maelstrom of allegations sweeping the country, bringing down powerful men, for misdeeds proven and unproven. I understand that for many of you this feels unfair: Peter has helped you personally ascend the ranks of the company by believing in you, and mentoring you. For others the described behavior may feel abstract; it isn't something you've witnessed, and many of the accusations occurred long before your time, maybe even before you were born. And above all, how could you possibly betray the man who plucked you from the school and gave you the chance of a lifetime: to dance with one of the most prestigious ballet companies in the world? How could you see this person, who gave you this chance, this gift, as the monster he's being painted as?
Throughout his remarkable career, the fiercely determined, intelligent and energetic Arthur Mitchell has become accustomed to being called a trailblazer. "Being a typical Aries, I like being the first," he says, laughing. "That's what I've been doing all my life."
This is true, especially when it comes to the discussion at the forefront of today's national dialogue about dance: diversity in ballet.
In the dance world, Mandy Moore has long been a go-to name, but in 2017, the success of her choreography for La La Land made the rest of the world stop and take notice. After whirlwind seasons as choreographer and producer on both "Dancing with the Stars" and "So You Think You Can Dance," she capped off the year with two Emmy Award nominations—and her first win.
You've come a long way on "So You Think You Can Dance"—from assistant to the choreographer (Season 1) to creative producer (Season 14). What keeps you returning to the show?
"So You Think You Can Dance" was one of my first jobs, so it feels like home. I love the chaos of live television; as soon as one show is over you're on to the next.
Last Saturday night, Dance/NYC, Gibney Dance and the Actors Fund hosted a conversation on sexual harassment in the dance world. The floor was open for anyone in attendance to share whatever they wanted: personal stories, resources, suggestions.
The event brought to light some of the questions the dance world is facing, and though we don't yet have all the answers, it helped lay out the areas we need to address:
What would dance-specific sexual harassment training and policies look like?
Corporate harassment trainings tend to tell employees to avoid touching coworkers and to not wear revealing clothing in the workplace. Obviously, these rules aren't applicable to the dance world. Many in attendance agreed that everyone in the dance world should undergo training, so what should it include?
The ballet world can't get enough of Arthur Pita. With his maverick, surreal imagination, the self-styled "David Lynch of dance" brings a welcome theatricality to everything he touches, from his version of Kafka's The Metamorphosis to 2017's Salome for San Francisco Ballet.
The South African–born Pita competed in disco dancing and later performed with Matthew Bourne's New Adventures. Today, he is Bourne's offstage partner, and the pair live together in London. His latest work, which premiered in November, is a one-act adaptation of Dorothy Scarborough's 1925 Texan novel, The Wind, for The Royal Ballet.
We've been a fan of the space bun look since our Spice Girls days, which is exactly why we were so excited when hair and makeup artist Angela Huff brought the double-bun style back for our January cover shoot with American Ballet Theatre's Erica Lall. To give the '90s style a modern twist, Huff added a few braided details. Here's how to copy the look for your next class:
Photo by Nathan Sayers
At age 24, dancer and choreographer Caleb Teicher already has accolades beyond his years. But this week, the Bessie Award–winning performer adds another impressive feat to his resumé: His company's Joyce Theater debut. Though tap is Teicher's focus, he masterfully combines everything from jazz to Lindy Hop to hip hop in his fresh, clever choreography.
We caught up with him for our "Spotlight" series: