In a few months, Christopher Wheeldon will be sunning on the beach with husband Ross Rayburn for Christmas in Acapulco.
Meanwhile, in what's likely to be a typically frigid Chicago winter, audiences will pack into the Auditorium Theatre for the highly anticipated premiere of his latest ballet: an original Nutcracker for the Joffrey Ballet. From now to then, there is much to be done.
During a two-week stint in Chicago, squeezed between a five-minute lunch break and an afternoon rehearsal, Wheeldon sat down with Windy City Times at Joffrey Tower to discuss the new production, though he's saving some of the magic for the premiere. Much remains a mystery about the costumes, sets, technical elements, and some of the plot, although it's likely to be as magical from the nosebleeds at the Auditorium Theatre as it is from the first row.
But why Nutcracker? Nutcracker is the cash cow of ballet. It doesn't necessarily have to be new or innovative or different to be successful. People love it because ... it's Nutcracker. Wheeldon has promised to deliver all the things Nutcracker purists care about: the tree will grow, there will be mice and soldiers and snow, and plenty of indulgent variations in the second act. In part, Wheeldon owes his preservation of these elements to Tchaikovsky's score, which dictates many of the ballet's original elements. "It's a great score, it's a wonderful story. I think it's a story that has room to breathe… but it's all there," said Wheeldon, whose Tony-winning American in Paris placed him on a short list of prestigious concert dance choreographers who have successfully crossed over to Broadway. "I'm really interested in making theatrical events. Of all the classical ballets, it's the one that you can really push the spectacle," he said.
And he means to, recruiting an all-star cast of Broadway collaborators including Tony-nominated set and costume designer Julian Crouch; Obie and Drama Desk Award-winning puppeteer Basil Twist; five-time Tony-winning lighting designer Natasha Katz and Tony-winning projection designer Ben Pearcy. "This Nutcracker is a way of looking at the technologically inventive side of theater now," said Wheeldon. "We're making a production that couldn't have been made 30 years ago."
Caldecott Medal Award-winning author Brian Selznick is in charge of the libretto. When the author/illustrator of children's books and pre-teen novels was first approached as a collaborator, he admitted he was an outsider. "I had heard of Christopher Wheeldon," said Selznick in a press conference in Chicago last April. "I had seen some ballets. I know the Nutcracker because I'm alive and human, but other than that I can't say I have any knowledge of this world."
This Nutcracker's connection to Selznick is the ballet's new inspiration: a change of setting from a stuffy Victorian living room to the fairgrounds of the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Selznick collects World's Fair memorabilia, and his husband, Dr. David Serlin, is a scholar on the topic. Selznick took a self-imposed weekend crash course on Nutcracker before meeting with Wheeldon and knew immediately that the things that are beloved about the Nutcracker and the World's Fair would perfectly complement each other, giving a little sense to an otherwise illogical ballet. "The second act is dances from all around the world," said Selznick, "and the World's Fair is filled with pavilions from all around the world. And suddenly, we have a reason to go all around the world!"
"It's the setting and the fairly radical treatment of Marie … that's the biggest innovation in this version," said Wheeldon. "In a nutshell, what we would like for this Nutcracker to celebrate, more than most, is the idea of Christmas going beyond just being about presents and candy, and to focus more on family and community." To that end, the central character Marie is from a working class family, whose matriarch is a sculptor working and living on the fair grounds. The opulent living room of most Nutcrackers' party scenes is replaced by a shanty that becomes warm and magical through the creativity and heart of Marie's family and the Polish immigrant community in which she lives. Think Nutcracker, meets Christmas Carol, meets Devil in the White City, sans the serial murderer.
The richer context lends audiences to a deeper dialogue than can usually be had about Nutcracker, if they want it. If not, the spectacle and magic alone are enough will likely be enough to outdo mostif not all rival productions. Perhaps most importantly, Wheeldon's Nutcracker is a Nutcracker set in Chicago, for Chicago. "I don't think I would have been interested in doing it anywhere else," he said.
Christopher Wheeldon's Nutcracker opens Saturday, Dec. 10, running for 27 performances through Friday, Dec. 30. Prior to the premiere, Joffrey fans can catch a reprise of Krzysztof Pastor's Romeo & Juliet Oct. 13-23 at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University, 50 E. Congress Pkwy.
Tickets for both productions are on sale at Joffrey.org, by telephone at 312-386-8905, or in person at the Auditorium Theatre box office or Joffrey's official box off in the lobby of Joffrey Tower, 10 E. Randolph St.