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 wide-
spread anti-immigrant feeling. “But,” says Wheeldon, “it’s certainly
aligned with what’s going on in the world and particularly in this coun-
try 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 find-
ing 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. —Wendy Perron
news | THE LATEST
Christopher Wheeldon creates a
working-class holiday ballet.
A New Nutcracker
for the Joffrey
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 Lon-
Nov. 30–Jan. 8.
doners 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 mem-
bers will be able to engage with the charac-
ters, played by
and actors, and
the fairy tale.
Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux’s Nutcracker is get-
ting 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.
Christopher Wheeldon at the Joffrey
(center) meets with
his music team.