116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY — Tony Award-winning choreographer Christopher Wheeldon knows very well the once-in-a-lifetime magic he's creating for children dancing alongside the pros in 'The Nutcracker.'
Now 43 and one of the most sought-after choreographers in the world, the British native portrayed a toy soldier in a Royal Ballet production in London, where he now serves as an artistic associate.
He's making that magic for more than 30 young Eastern Iowa dancers and their audiences with a cutting-edge re-imagining of the beloved ballet, set against the backdrop of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. It's seen through the eyes of the immigrant workers who are building the fair — and building a sense of community in the process — as well as the holiday magic that is the story's hallmark.
The show opens Thursday at Hancher Auditorium in Iowa City, and runs for five performances through Sunday afternoon. Tickets are scarce.
Hancher is co-commissioning the Joffrey Ballet's new work with a $500,000 investment toward the $4 million price tag. The local shows are billed as 'preview' performances before the production has its official world premiere Dec. 10-30 in downtown Chicago's Auditorium Theatre.
'Of course, with these previews, we want to deliver something as marvelous as what we're going to be delivering in Chicago,' Wheeldon told a full house of about 120 eager patrons and dancers Monday night in Hancher's Stanley Cafe. They gathered for a panel discussion with key figures who shaped the new 'Nutcracker.' He entered on crutches with his right foot in a boot, which he earlier waved off as 'an accident,' and didn't elaborate.
'We want to create something really great for you guys. So, yes, it's previews, but it's really 'opening,' '
'It's pretty rare for a ballet production to have an out-of-town opening and have the opportunity to work out the kinks. Something like 'The Nutcracker' is almost the size of a Broadway musical, with upward of 60, 70 people in the cast,' he said in a mid-November phone interview from Chicago. 'This allows us the chance to work some things out and still be working on the production as we're presenting it in Iowa. Not to say that the production won't be of the highest quality, but we may be making some changes.'
During Monday's panel discussion, he lavished praise on the more than 30 Corridor-area children who are appearing at Hancher. Young dancers from the Chicago area are to perform in their hometown.
'The ballet master that's been working with them here from Joffrey and also the local ballet masters have done a really fantastic job,' Wheeldon said of the Eastern Iowa children. Ranging in age from 6 to 17, they auditioned in mid-September at Hancher, then rehearsed at the Nolte Academy in Coralville.
'I was very nervous, because I really didn't know what to expect,' Wheeldon said. 'We've had very little time to be plugged into the production, in a way. So I'm seeing them for the first time, along with seeing the theater for the first time, and the production for the first time, and the scenery, the costumes, the lighting. It's been a huge relief to have this great group of kids.'
He's keenly aware of the importance this opportunity presents to them.
'You never forget your first time on stage,' he said by phone. 'I think for many of these kids, this will be their first time performing professionally in front of an audience. The magic of 'The Nutcracker' is the kind of experience you take with you through the rest of your life. ...
It's their first interaction with company members, understanding how a studio rehearsal is run, what's expected of you, your responsibilities onstage — all of those are new lessons for these kids.'
'It's extremely inspirational for them,' said Grace Snider, director of ballet for Nolte Academy, who has been rehearsing the local children. 'For the little ones ...
it can give them something to look up to, remember and hold close, as in 'I want to be that someday.' And for the older ones, it gives them more of an insight into what the dancers go through.'
Jeff Maxted was 11 when he danced with the Joffrey's 1987 re-imagining. Now 40, he portrayed one of the party children, a doll and on occasion, a mouse. But what he remembers most is being one of the children who emerged from Mother Ginger's iconic giant hoop skirt, taking 'a big bow, front and center.'
He also recalls all the hard work, as well as how fun it was to actually see the end results — taking the production to the Kennedy Center's 'huge' Opera House stage in Washington, D.C.
These days, he's an environmental specialist for Alliant Energy, living in Madison, Wisconsin. Even though he only studied dance another year or two, he became friends with the other Joffrey 'Nutcracker' kids, and he's looking forward to meeting up with them again at Saturday's Gala Reception and reunion following the 7:30 p.m. performance.
Over the course of 29 years, more than 400 children have danced in productions of the more traditional Joffrey setting.
One of this year's dancers seeing it through new eyes is Maddie Brown, 13, of Iowa City. A Nolte Academy student, she dances each year in her studio's 'Nutcracker' productions at the Englert Theatre in Iowa City, and is portraying the Sugar Plum Fairy there Dec. 9-11. For the upcoming Joffrey production, however, she's one of the worker girls at the fair, an understudy walnut and in the cavalry — vastly different from the party scene she began dancing around age 6 or 7.
'It's cool to see the new twist on it,' she said.
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