The 1893 Columbian Exposition brought the best of the best to Chicago, to share the spirit of innovation and imagination with the world, all on an impossible timeline with an impossible budget. The buzz of anticipation and the expectations of what could or might happen were felt throughout the city and the county.
This is perhaps something the Joffrey Ballet can relate to right now. With technical rehearsals and previews of Christopher Wheeldon's Nutcracker wrapping up in Iowa City, the company is headed home to prepare for one of the most highly-anticipated premieres in Chicago dance history. Wheeldon's dream team of collaborators are the best and brightest from their disciplines, with Tony-nominated set and costume designer Julian Crouch, Obie and Drama Desk award-winning puppeteer and MacArthur "Genius" Basil Twist, five-time Tony-winning lighting designer Natasha Katz and Tony-winning projection designer Ben Pearcy of 59 Productions.
Each is tasked with fulfilling the lofty visions of Tony-award winning director and choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, who with Caldecott-winning author and illustrator Brian Selznick have moved the ballet's setting from an upper-class German living room to a shanty at the fairgrounds on the near south side in 1892 Chicago, the winter before the Columbian Exposition would open. Ms. Katz, Mr. Crouch and Mr. Pearcy reflected on the artistic process and the realization of Christopher Wheeldon's dream for his Nutcracker in electronic correspondence with Windy City Times.
"Working with Chris is heaven," wrote Natasha Katz. "I've worked with Chris for over 15 years and I think he makes me a better designer every time I work with him." Ben Pearcy agreed: "Working with Chris is many thingsexciting, challenging, joyful and, above all, great fun. … He has a wonderful ability to be both demanding and kind and really brings out the best work from his collaborators."
Many choreographers work on the movement first and build design elements in after the dance is formed. The team said the working with Wheeldon is different because has a vision for lighting, sets, projections and props from early in the process. "Chris is the kind of director who has a very singular vision and is very closely involved with every aspect of his productions," wrote Julian Crouch. "A fair amount of my relationship with Chris is trying to unpick his thoughts and read his mind, because I know the show is already in there… in my opinion he is more theatrically and story minded than many pure [theater] directors that I've worked with."
Working together to tell the story liberates the designers to fully exploit their respective mediums, but it also unites them toward a common goal, meaning no one element speaks louder than another. "It is a collaboration in the deepest sense," wrote Crouch. "The influence we have on each other and the production is constant and equal. I think each one if us want the very best for the production, and are willing to blur the boundaries of our separate skills to achieve a seamless whole." Katz agreed: "Collaboration is everything on this ballet. It's a wonderful mix of scenery, costumes, projection and lighting, choreography, storytelling and music."
For better or worse, the dance world is influenced by ghosts of Nutcrackers past. "The Nutcracker comes with many expectations," wrote Crouch, "and the greatest challenge was to honor this while simultaneously delivering something fresh and exciting." Christopher Wheeldon takes care to ensure certain needs and expectations are met, partly because they are dictated by his use of the original Tchaikovksy score: the tree will grow; there will be snow, and mice, and a kingdom of worldly delights. It is some of these elements, however, that have been most difficult to see realized. "The transformation of the tree has been very challenging to get right," said Pearcy. "It's the marriage of every element of the production, and that integration has to be seamless for it to work."
What is most interesting about this Nutcracker team, however, is the relative novelty each brings to the Nutcracker. For Katz and Crouch, this is their first Nutcracker. Pearcy drew some influence from a Chicago production at the Arie Crowne Theatre in the early 1990s. "I was the assistant lighting designer for Tom Skelton," he said. "That production was very different visually and conceptually from [Wheeldon]'s Nutcracker, but I did take some inspiration from how the Overture was staged. Tom crafted a story with light on the show curtain that took the audience on a journey through the idyllic town that was painted onto the curtain. I'd like to think that our imagery for the Overture also creates a journey for the audience and brings them into our unique story."
The Broadway-bred group of designers is feeling the idiosyncracies of the dance world, with the most obvious challenge begin time. "Lighting is very exacting and it takes time in the theatre to get the lighting exactly right," wrote Katz. "We have worked very fast, since the vision has been in our collective head for months." Ballet costumes and sets presented unique challenges for Crouch, including that his elements be able to withstand wear and tear over the next several decades. "The Joffrey needs a show that will last a very long time," wrote Crouch. Indeed, the original impetus for commissioning the ballet was one of practicality; when Artistic Director Ashley Wheater took the Joffrey's helm in 2007, he found the quarter century-old sets and costumes of Robert Joffrey's Nutcracker ( for which he danced the role of Father/Snow King in the 1987 premiere ) in tatters.
It may or may not be coincidence that the World's Fair and the Nutcracker it inspired have been chock full of challenges, not least of which is Wheeldon's ankle-breaking fall into the orchestra pit in Iowa City ( as reported by the New York Times ). Despite the challenges, the show will go on, as the World's Fair did, and will undoubtedly bring magic, wonder and delight to the masses.
Christopher Wheeldon's Nutcracker, presented by the Joffrey Ballet, runs Dec. 10-30 at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress Pkwy. For more information and tickets, visit Joffrey.org .