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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.
It can be hard to focus when Alice Sheppard dances.
Her recent sold-out run of DESCENT at New York Live Arts, for instance, offered a constellation of stimulation. Onstage was a large architectural ramp with an assortment of peaks and planes. There was an intricate lighting and projection design. There was a musical score that unfolded like an epic poem. There was a live score too: the sounds of Sheppard and fellow dancer Laurel Lawson's bodies interacting with the surfaces beneath them.
And there were wheelchairs. But if you think the wheelchairs are the center of this work, you're missing something vital about what Sheppard creates.
"I'm sorry, but I just can't possibly give you the amount of money you're asking for."
My heart sinks at my director's final response to my salary proposal. She insists it's not me or my work, there is just no money in the budget. My disappointment grows when handed the calendar for Grand Rapids Ballet's next season with five fewer weeks of work.
"It just...always looks better in my head."
While that might not be something any of us would want to hear from a choreographer, it's a brilliant introduction to "Off Kilter" and the odd, insecure character at its center, Milton Frank. The ballet mockumentary (think "The Office" or "Parks and Recreation," but with pointe shoes) follows Frank (dancer-turned-filmmaker Alejandro Alvarez Cadilla) as he comes back to the studio to try his hand at choreographing for the first time since a plagiarism scandal derailed his fledgling career back in the '90s.
We've been pretty excited about the series for a while, and now the wait is finally over. The first episode of the show, "The Denial," went live earlier today, and it's every bit as awkward, hilarious and relatable as we hoped.
A Jellicle Ball is coming to the big screen, with the unlikeliest of dancemakers on tap to choreograph.
We'll give you some hints: His choreography can aptly be described as "animalistic," though Jellicle cats have never come to mind specifically when watching his hyper-physical work. He's worked on movies before—even one about Beasts. And though contemporary ballet is his genre of choice, his choreography is certainly theatrical enough to lend itself to a musical.
What is the right flooring system for us?
So many choices, companies, claims, endorsements, and recommendations to consider. The more you look, the more confusing it gets. Here is what you need to do. Here is what you need to know to get the flooring system suited to your needs.
These days, everyone tells you how important it is to be versatile. But what if you're convinced there's just one style that's right for you? It can be tough to balance a deep interest in a single specialty and still meet many choreographers' expectations. Luckily, you don't have to choose between all in or all over the place, as long as you follow your interests thoughtfully.
So far, the fervor to create diversity in ballet has primarily focused on dancers. Less attention has been paid to the work that they'll encounter once they arrive.
Yet the cultivation of ballet choreographers of color (specifically black choreographers) through traditional pathways of choreographic training grounds remains virtually impossible. No matter how you slice it, we end up at the basic issues that plague the pipeline to the stage: access and privilege.
Christopher Wheeldon is going to be giving Michael Jackson some new moves: The Royal Ballet artistic associate is bringing the King of Pop to Broadway.
The unlikely pairing was announced today by Jackson's estate. Wheeldon will serve as both director and choreographer for the new musical inspired by Michael Jackson's life, which is aiming for a 2020 Broadway opening. This will be Wheeldon's second time directing and choreographing, following 2015's Tony Award-winning An American in Paris.
Wheeldon is a surprising choice, to say the least. There are many top choreographers who worked with Jackson directly, like Wade Robson and Brian Friedman, who could have been tapped for the project. Or the production could have even hired someone who actually choreographed on Jackson when he was alive, like Buddha Stretch.
Broadway musicals have been on my mind for more than half a century. I discovered them in grade school, not in a theater but electronically. On the radio, every weeknight an otherwise boring local station would play a cast album in its entirety; on television, periodically Ed Sullivan's Sunday night variety show would feature an excerpt from the latest hit—numbers from Bye Bye Birdie, West Side Story, Camelot, Flower Drum Song.
But theater lives in the here and now, and I was in middle school when I attended my first Broadway musical, Gypsy—based, of all things, on the early life of the famed burlesque queen Gypsy Rose Lee. I didn't know who Jerome Robbins was, but I recognized genius when I saw it—kids morphing into adults as a dance number progresses, hilarious stripping routines, a pas de deux giving concrete shape to the romantic yearnings of an ugly duckling. It proved the birth of a lifelong habit, indulged for the last 18 years in the pages of this magazine. But all long runs eventually end, and it's time to say good-bye to the "On Broadway" column. It's not the last of our Broadway coverage—there's too much great work being created and performed, and you can count on hearing from me in print and online.
Let's start with the obvious: Over the weekend, Beyoncé and Jay-Z released a joint album, Everything Is Love. Bey and Jay also dropped a video for the album's lead track, which they filmed inside the actual Louvre museum in Paris (as one does, when one is a member of the Carter family). And the vid features not only thought-provoking commentary on the Western art tradition, but also some really incredible dancing.
So, who choreographed this epic? And who are the dancers bringing it to life in those already-iconic bodystockings?
Travis Wall draws inspiration from dancers Tate McCrae, Timmy Blankenship and more.
One often-overlooked relationship that exists in dance is the relationship between choreographer and muse. Recently two-time Emmy Award Winner Travis Wall opened up about his experience working with dancers he considers to be his muses.
"My muses in choreography have evolved over the years," says Wall. "When I'm creating on Shaping Sound, our company members, my friends, are my muses. But at this current stage of my career, I'm definitely inspired by new, fresh talent."
Wall adds, "I'm so inspired by this new generation of dancers. Their teachers have done such incredible jobs, and I've seen these kids grown up. For many of them, I've had a hand in their exposure to choreography."
This week, New York City's Joyce Theater presents two companies addressing LGBTQ+ issues.