IOWA CITY — Hancher audiences are in for some surprises when the curtain rises on preview performances of the Joffrey’s new “Nutcracker” ballet Thursday night through Sunday afternoon.
“It’s the Sugar-free ‘Nutcracker,’ ” choreographer Christopher Wheeldon quipped during a panel discussion at Hancher on Monday night.
Among the changes, the traditional Sugar Plum Fairy is now the Golden Statue, and the young girl Clara, who receives a nutcracker for Christmas, is known by her long-standing alternate name, Marie. She and her mother and brother are part of the immigrant group building the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, creating holiday magic from the people and cultures they encounter.
It’s all part of a new vision of sugarplums dancing in the heads of Wheeldon, author Brian Selznick (Caldecott Medal winner for “The Invention of Hugo Cabret”) and Joffrey Artistic Director Ashley Wheater, who dreamed of a new “Nutcracker” reflecting the rich history of Chicago, which the Joffrey calls home.
“We haven’t taken away Christmas, so that’s a good start,” Wheeldon said. The production still features a giant tree that “grows,” snow and Mother Ginger, renamed Mother Nutcracker. Herr Drosselmeyer is now dubbed “The Great Impresario,” to reflect the spirit of a fair that attracted more than 27 million visitors from May 1 to Oct. 30, 1893, and introduced them to the electric light bulb, Juicy Fruit gum, Pabst Blue Ribbon beer and the Ferris wheel. Buffalo Bill Cody, who was denied a spot at the fair and set up his Wild West show right outside the site, also gets a nod.
“I knew that as much as I love Robert Joffrey’s ‘Nutcracker’ (which premiered at Hancher in 1987), it was completely falling apart. We had to do something,” Wheater said. “Were we going to rebuild it and keep it the same, or were we going to take this opportunity to have one of the best living, breathing choreographers in the world today come and work with the Joffrey and re-imagine what ‘The Nutcracker’ looks like. The World’s Fair for me seemed an amazing journey for the country that is made up of immigrants. We all come from somewhere.”
The new version also takes the story from the Victorian opulence of the upper class, into a family where the rewards are not in finery, making it more relatable to today’s audiences.
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“The values of ‘The Nutcracker’ are in our humanity, not in gifts,” Wheater said. “To re-look at what family means and what community means, and how we celebrate that in a really magical way just seemed the right place for Marie to be able to travel through the World’s Fair and to explore the pavilions that were built (there). It had a continuing journey.”
Wheeldon’s journey with the Joffrey project grew out of his longtime history with Wheater, a fellow native of Great Britain.
“I’ve been friends with Ashley Wheater for many years actually — quite a few years prior to him taking over the Joffrey Ballet” in 2007, said Wheeldon, who is based in New York. “It was a discussion we had quite early on, right before he took the job, discussing the future of the (repertoire) at the Joffrey and which of the classics I might be interested in taking on at some point, and ‘The Nutcracker’ came up then, in that conversation.”
The work began in earnest three years ago, when Wheater and Chuck Swanson, Hancher’s executive director, began talking about a collaboration, and Wheeldon began assembling a world-class creative team to bring this to life. In addition to Selznick, who wrote the new story, are Tony-nominated scenery and costume designer Julian Crouch (“Hedwig and the Angry Inch”); award-winning puppeteer and 2015 MacArthur Genius grant winner Basil Twist (“The Addams Family” and “The Pee-Wee Herman Show”); five-time Tony-winning lighting designer Natasha Katz (“An American in Paris,” “Once” and the 2018 Broadway musical, “Frozen”); and Tony-winning projection designer Benjamin Pearcy (“An American in Paris,” “Hedwig and the Angry Inch”).
Crouch has never seen “The Nutcracker” onstage. But that didn’t stop him from jumping at the chance to work with Wheeldon again, after designing Wheeldon’s 2012 “Cinderella” ballet.
“I come from Europe — (‘The Nutcracker’) is not such a big tradition there,” said Crouch, a Brooklyn-based British designer and director whose career spans stage and screen. Extensive research gave him not only a historic basis for his designs, but also a sense of giving audiences what they’ll want — “where to be true to the research and where to push fantasy.”
The music is also getting a few pushes in Act I.
Orchestra Iowa is doing double-duty with “Nutcrackers” this holiday season, playing for the Hancher production, as well as the annual stagings by Ballet Quad Cities at the Paramount Theatre in Cedar Rapids on Dec. 5 and the Adler Theatre in Davenport on Dec. 10. The Chicago Philharmonic is playing for the Joffrey’s Chicago performances.
“Hancher and Orchestra Iowa have been fostering a closer relationship ever since the floods of 2008, and I was honored when they reached out to include us in this spectacular project,” Maestro Timothy Hankewich said. “To perform with one of the leading ballet companies of the world is a dream come true, and Hancher’s nod that the quality of our orchestra can hold its own in this production was extremely touching and gratifying.”
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It’s also challenging, with expectations and requirements he said “only a professional orchestra” can provide.
“Almost a third of the music from Act I has been rewritten or rearranged by composer Ljova so that three of our musicians — Concertmaster Dawn Gingrich, principal clarinetist Christine Bellomy and associate principal cellist James Ellis — join the dancers onstage as a gypsy group of musicians playing the music of Tchaikovsky in a freer, more Klezmer-like style. ...
“As soon as the magical world of the plot begins, the full opulence of Tchaikovsky’s original score then takes over. Coordinating this with our librarian, Blaine Cunningham, has been a herculean task, as there are always last-minute tweaks to get the music just right for the dancers, and then to have the parts prepared and forwarded to the musicians in time for them to get ready,” Hankewich said.
Since the Ballet Quad Cities “Nutcracker” uses Tchaikovsky’s entire original score, Hankewich also credits Cunningham for helping to keep the musicians on track.
“Logistically, preparing two musical versions of this holiday classic and keeping them separate so that musicians don’t confuse one for the other, has required (Cunningham’s) massive due diligence. (He) is the true Nutcracker hero for us this season.”
IF YOU GO
What: Joffrey Ballet presents “The Nutcracker”
Where: Hancher Auditorium, 141 E. Park Road, Iowa City
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday.
Tickets: LIMITED, $20 to $75; call the Hancher Box Office for availability, (319) 335-1160 or 1-800-426-2437
Extra: Gala Reception, black-tie optional, 9 p.m. Saturday, $25, Hancher.uiowa.edu/2016-17/nutcracker-gala-reception
l Comments: (319) 368-8508; firstname.lastname@example.org