December means Nutcracker in the dance world, and the Chicago area has dozens of choices. The famous story of Clara and a nutcracker doll who turns into a magical prince is based on E.T.A. Hoffmann's tale. The story was originally choreographed as a ballet by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov in 1892, set to the lush 90-minute score by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.
For 28 years, The Joffrey Ballet's production has been a beloved part of Chicago's holiday season. Conceived and directed by founding artistic director Robert Joffrey, Joffrey's interpretation of the dark Hoffmann tale is decidedly light and magical in a production featuring stunning sets and costumes, an astounding level of detail, and co-founder Gerald Arpino's now famous Snow and Waltz of the Flowers scenes. So loved is this production, that it was shocking to hear the company would retire it in this, its 60th season, to make way for a brand new Nutcracker by choreographer Christopher Wheeldon in 2016.
"It's very nostalgic," said veteran Joffrey dancer Derrick Agnoletti in an interview with Windy City Times. Agnoletti is best known for his roles as Fritz/Snow Prince ( uniquely cast as a duel role in Joffrey's production ) and Chinese. "Some of the people I grew up with in the company have been dancing together since day one, and have had the opportunity to have watched many dancers before us like Calvin Kitten and Suzanne Lopez." Kitten, who danced with Joffrey from 1991-2010, was also a celebrated performer in the role of Fritz/Snow Prince. "They inspired us in their roles inï申Nutcrackerï申with their dedication, hard work and incredible artistry," said Agnoletti. "It's a Joffrey tradition to take pride and work tirelessly to keep your roles fresh and technically brilliant."
Michigan native Anastacia Holden joined the company in 2005 with Agnoletti. "Saying goodbye to the Joffreyï申Nutcracker will be very difficult," she said. "There is something wonderful about dancing the choreography of Mr. Joffrey and Mr. Arpino, which is both stylistically and musically unique. That being said, Mr. Joffrey and Mr. Arpino were both innovative men interested in pushing the boundaries of the art form, trying new things, and taking risks. I see the newï申Nutcrackerï申as a continuation of that foundational piece of Mr. Joffrey's long-term vision for his dancers and his company."
Agnoletti agreed that the spirit of The Joffrey Ballet is grounded in the future, not the past. "I will definitely miss this version, as it holds a near and dear place to my heart," he said, "but … I think it's important that The Joffrey Ballet keep growing and pushing the boundaries of ballet. I am looking forward to Mr. Wheeldon coming to Joffrey and sharing his creativity and craft, as his intelligence and respect of the art form of ballet will really shine in a new version of The Nutcracker. It gives the company a new treat to bite on and artists today really thrive when they are fed with new material."
Artistic Director Ashley Wheater was a member of the Joffrey Ballet when Joffrey created the ballet in 1987, and performed the dual role of Father ( Mr. Stahlbaum ) and Snow King for its world-premiere performance in Iowa City. In an interview with Windy City Times, Wheater acknowledged that Joffrey was a proponent of innovation and technology, and would likely agree that it is time to move forward. "For years we've talked about, 'What are we going to do about The Nutcracker?'" he said. The costumes, sets, and props are disintegrating after 28 years of wear and tear, and would have to be rebuilt anyway. Christopher Wheeldon's Nutcracker will incorporate a more contemporary take on the story, modern stagecraft technology that didn't exist 30 years ago, and Chicago-centric themes based on the 1893 Columbian Exposition. The ballet will be the first full-length work set on this generation of Joffrey's dancers.
"Ballet companies now compete with Broadway," said Wheater. "They want something that is overwhelmingly magical. I don't think anybody has anything bad to say about this version of The Nutcracker, and it will always be there, but the possibilities that are coming forwardthey're exciting.
"Family has a different meaning today. [Wheeldon], for me, is of our generation. He's a great storyteller, and I think that Chris comes with all the things that we really care about: humanity, the warmth of Christmas, what makes The Nutcracker a great story, and so much respect for the music."
Wheater will return to the stage for the final performance on Dec. 27, alongside April Daly as Mr. and Mrs. Stahlbaum in the party scene. The opening 20 minutes at the Stahlbaums' residence is Wheater's favorite section of the ballet, and the only one that was dreamt up by Robert Joffrey alone. Wheater calls the beautifully detailed scene "Joffrey's stamp on the ballet."
The Joffrey Ballet performs The Nutcracker at Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University, 50 E. Congress Pkwy., through Sunday, Dec. 27. Tickets are $32-$136, available at The Joffrey Ballet's official box office, 10 E. Randolph St., as well as the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University box office, Ticketmaster Ticket Centers, by telephone at 800-982-2787 or online at www.ticketmaster.com .