In the world of ballet, The Nutcracker is sort of a gateway drug. Choreographer Christopher Wheeldon danced his first Nutcracker when he was 11, with London's Royal Ballet. After he moved to the U.S., he danced the Balanchine production with the New York City Ballet.
Wheeldon is the choreographer behind a brand new Nutcracker created for the Joffrey Ballet. Expectations are high for this $4 million production, which premieres Saturday. It replaces the version that founder Robert Joffrey choreographed in 1987 — his last work before he died of AIDS.
"From the business side of the Joffrey, The Nutcracker generates over 50 percent of our annual box office revenue," says Greg Cameron, executive director of the Joffrey. The annual production doesn't just bring in revenue, it also expands audiences. "It helps us introduce them to ballet and then, I think, helps us extend invitations to them to return and see the other kinds of work that we do," he explains.
So, when the Joffrey production grew a bit long in the tooth, the company raised more than $4 million for a new production. Wheeldon says he was game, but he definitely had questions.
"If I'm going to approach a classic like The Nutcracker, how can I put my stamp on it?" he asked. "You know, why is it worthwhile to look at this?"
The key for him was setting the new production in Chicago — specifically at the famous World's Fair of 1893, a period that's actually contemporaneous with the original ballet. Doing research, Wheeldon came across a photograph of a worker's shack, surrounded by towering buildings under construction.
"And that sort of made us think ... perhaps this is maybe the story of an immigrant worker's family, rather than, you know, the child of a wealthy Victorian family," he says.
So, Wheeldon's Nutcracker — with a new scenario by children's book author Brian Selznick — focuses on Polish immigrants.
"The largest innovation in this production is its setting ..." Wheeldon explains. "The idea that it's a poor family, that it focuses on a community that sort of comes together at Christmas and very much makes do with what it has."
It comes with a large cast, including some 50 professional dancers and more than 100 kids. Principal ballerina Victoria Jaiani danced her first Nutcracker in Tblisi, Georgia when she was 11. She's been with the company for 14 years and danced many roles in Joffrey's Nutcracker, including the Sugar Plum Fairy. This year, she's doing the equivalent part, but says Wheeldon has added a psychological dimension.
"Here we have a chance to build a story — it has a bit more depth, in my perspective, and meaning," Jaiani says. "So, the first act I play the sculptress, also single parent to Marie and Fritz. She is sculpting one of the biggest sculptures of the World's Fair in Chicago. And then, in the second act, in Marie's imagination, it's in her dream that her mom becomes a golden statue herself."
The World's Fair setting seems a natural fit for the second act where the magical Drosselmayer character, here named the Impresario, takes young Marie on a tour of the fair. (Wheeldon describes him as a cross between architect Daniel Burnham, Nikola Tesla and P.T. Barnum.)
"It seemed like a no-brainer in a way," Wheeldon says, "because the international pavilions at the World's Fair are kind of the perfect setting for the, sort of, standard national dances of the second act."
Despite the fresh take, Wheeldon's making sure his production delivers what's expected of a Nutcracker.
"We follow the structure of the story quite closely," he says, "and the things that are dictated by the score — like the Christmas tree growing, the land of the snow, the Waltz of the Snowflakes — all of those are still very much in this production."
And, despite the high price tag, the Joffrey's executive director Greg Cameron feels it's worth every penny of the $4 million.
"It certainly is a very, very sound investment for the Joffrey, given that we have a 10-year license with the work — it is something that we will do every year," Cameron says.
And he hopes the production can tour and be taped, so people outside Chicago can experience it, as well.