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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.
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.
Whether playing a saucy soubrette or an imperious swan, Irina Dvorovenko was always a formidable presence on the American Ballet Theatre stage. Since her 2013 retirement at 39, after 16 seasons, she's been bringing that intensity to an acting career in roles ranging from, well, Russian ballerinas to the Soviet-era newcomer she plays in the FX spy series "The Americans."
We caught up with her after tech rehearsal for the Encores! presentation of the musical Grand Hotel, directed and choreographed by Josh Rhodes and running March 21–25 at New York City Center. It's another tempestuous ballerina role for Dvorovenko—Elizaveta Grushinskaya, on her seventh farewell tour, resentfully checks into the Berlin hostelry of the title with her entourage, only to fall for a handsome young baron and sing "Bonjour, Amour."
When Andrew Montgomery first saw the Las Vegas hit Le Rêve - The Dream 10 years ago, he knew he had to be a part of the show one day. Eight years later, he auditioned, and made it to the last round of cuts. On his way home, still waiting to hear whether he'd been cast, he was in a motorcycle accident that ended up costing him half his leg.
But Montgomery's story doesn't end the way you might think. Today, he's a cast member of Le Rêve, where he does acrobatics and aerial work, swims (yes, the show takes places in and around a large pool) and dances, all with his prosthetic leg.
Last week in a piece I wrote about the drama at English National Ballet, I pointed out that many of the accusations against artistic director Tamara Rojo—screaming at dancers, giving them the silent treatment, taking away roles without explanation—were, unfortunately, pretty standard practice in the ballet world:
If it's a conversation we're going to have, we can't only point the finger at ENB.
The line provoked a pretty strong response. Professional dancers, students and administrators reached out to me, making it clear that it's a conversation they want to have. Several shared their personal stories of experiencing abusive behavior.
Christopher Hampson, artistic director of the Scottish Ballet, wrote his thoughts about the issue on his company's website on Monday:
When you spend as much time on the road as The Royal Ballet's Steven McRae, getting access to a proper gym can be a hassle. To stay fit, the Australian-born principal turns to calisthenics—the old-school art of developing aerobic ability and strength with little to no equipment.
"It's basically just using your own body weight," McRae explains. "In terms of partnering, I'm not going to dance with a ballerina who is bigger than me, so if I can sustain my own body weight, then in my head I should be fine."
Camille A. Brown is on an impressive streak: In October, the Ford Foundation named her an Art of Change fellow. In November, she won an AUDELCO ("Viv") Award for her choreography in the musical Bella: An American Tall Tale. On December 1, her Camille A. Brown & Dancers made its debut at the Kennedy Center, and two days later she was back in New York City to see her choreography in the opening of Broadway's Once on This Island. Weeks later, it was announced that she was choreographing NBC's live television musical Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert, to air on April 1.
An extraordinarily private person, few knew that during this time Brown was in the midst of a health crisis. It started with an upset stomach while performing with her company on tour last summer.
"I was drinking ginger ale, thinking that I would feel better," she says. Finally, the pain became so acute that she went to the emergency room in Mississippi. Her appendix had burst. "Until then, I didn't know it was serious," she says. "I'm a dancer—aches and pains don't keep you from work."
A flock of polyamorous princes, a chorus of queer dying swans, a dominatrix witch: These are a few of the characters that populate the works of Katy Pyle, who, with her Brooklyn-based company Ballez, has been uprooting ballet's gender conventions since 2011.
Historically, ballet has not allowed for the expression of lesbian, transgender or gender-nonconforming identities. With Ballez, Pyle is reinventing the classical canon on more inclusive terms. Her work stems from a deep love of ballet and, at the same time, a frustration with its limits on acceptable body types and on the stories it traditionally tells.
The latest fitness fad has us literally buzzing. Vibrating tools—and exercise classes—promise added benefits to your typical workout and recovery routine, and they're only growing more popular.
Warning: These good vibrations don't come cheap.
My life is in complete chaos since my dance company disbanded. I have a day job, so money isn't the issue. It's the loss of my world that stings the most. What can I do?
—Lost Career, Washington, DC
Dance Theatre of Harlem is busy preparing for the company's Vision Gala on April 4. The works on the program, which takes place on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., reflect on the legacy of Dr. King and his impact on company founder Arthur Mitchell. Among them is the much-anticipated revival of legendary choreographer Geoffrey Holder's Dougla, which will include live music and dancers from Collage Dance Collective.
We stepped into the studio with Holder's wife Carmen de Lavallade and son Leo Holder to hear what it feels like to keep Holder's legacy alive and what de Lavallade thinks of the recent rise in kids standing up against the government—as she did not too long ago.
The encounter with man-eating female creatures in Jerome Robbins' The Cage never fails to shock audiences. As this tribe of insects initiates the newly-born Novice into their community and prepares her for the attack of the male Intruders, the ballet draws us into a world of survival and instinct.
This year celebrates the 100th anniversary of Jerome Robbins' birth, and a number of Robbins programs are celebrating his timeless repertoire. But it especially feels like a prime moment to experience The Cage again. Several companies are performing it: San Francisco Ballet begins performances on March 20, followed by the English National Ballet in April and New York City Ballet in May.
Why it matters: In this time of female empowerment—as women are supporting one another in vocalizing injustices, demanding fair treatment and pay, and advocating for future generations—The Cage's nest of dominant women have new significance.