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Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet Looks to City’s Immigrant History for Inspiration


Choreographer Christopher Wheeldon set the Joffrey Ballet’s Nutcracker in Chicago, as the city prepares for the opening of the 1893 World’s Fair.

This is the season when ballet companies in the United States present "The Nutcracker" by Tchaikovsky. The holiday classic tells the story of a young girl whose favorite Christmas gift, a nutcracker, comes alive and whisks her away to a magical kingdom populated by dolls.

The original story takes place in Germany, during a Christmas party of an upper class Victorian family. But some companies give it a different spin. Here in the nation’s capital, the Washington Ballet sets the production in Georgetown, with President George Washington as the nutcracker. This year, Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet is looking to that city’s immigrant history for inspiration.

Joffrey Ballet company member Amanda Assucena as Marie receives a gift of a nutcracker in Christopher Wheeldon’s new production.
Joffrey Ballet company member Amanda Assucena as Marie receives a gift of a nutcracker in Christopher Wheeldon’s new production.

It is choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon. Like many dancers, he has a long history with the ballet. He danced his first "Nutcracker" when he was 11, with London’s Royal Ballet.

“I was selected to be one of the kids in that production," he recalled. "And then I, you know, continued dancing in 'The Nutcracker' for my years as a dancer, especially moving to America.”

Along with being a major draw for ballet companies, generating a large percentage of their annual revenue,"The Nutcracker," with its familiar music and holiday spectacle, also expands their audience.

Greg Cameron, the Joffrey’s executive director, explains, "It helps us introduce them to ballet and then, I think, helps us extend invitations to them to return and see the other kinds of work that we do."

Wheeldon, a Tony-award-winning choreographer, has created new works for companies around the world, including the Bolshoi, London's Royal Ballet and the New York City Ballet. As he approached this latest assignment from the Joffrey, he had some questions.

“You know, if I am going to approach a classic like 'The Nutcracker,' how can I put my stamp on it? You know, why is it worthwhile to look at this?”

A new setting, a new story

The key for him was setting the new production in Chicago, specifically, at the famous World’s Fair of 1893, a period that is contemporaneous with the original ballet.

As Wheeldon and his team began their research, they came across a striking photograph.

"A worker’s shack, sitting under the towering skeletal, sort of, construction of the buildings going up." That image, he says, sparked an idea. "Perhaps this is maybe the story of an immigrant worker’s family, rather than, you know, the child of a wealthy Victorian family."

Unlike the upper class family in the traditional story, Christopher Wheeldon's "Nutcracker" casts the Joffrey dancers as a poor immigrant community enjoying a Christmas Eve party.
Unlike the upper class family in the traditional story, Christopher Wheeldon's "Nutcracker" casts the Joffrey dancers as a poor immigrant community enjoying a Christmas Eve party.

So, Wheeldon’s "Nutcracker," with a new scenario by children’s book author Brian Selznick, focuses on Polish immigrants.

“The largest innovation in this production is its setting; is the idea that it’s a poor family, that it focuses on a community that sort of comes together at Christmas and very much makes do with what it has,” he said.

The cast includes 50 professional dancers and more than 100 children. Principal ballerina Victoria Jaiani danced her first "Nutcracker" in Tblisi, Georgia, when she was 11. She has been with the Joffrey company for 14 years and danced many roles in "The Nutcracker," including the Sugar Plum Fairy.

This year, she is doing the equivalent part, but says Wheeldon has added psychological dimension.

The Joffrey’s principal ballerina Victoria Jaiani as The Queen of the Fair in Christopher Wheeldon’s The Nutcracker.
The Joffrey’s principal ballerina Victoria Jaiani as The Queen of the Fair in Christopher Wheeldon’s The Nutcracker.

“Here we have a chance to build a story. It has a bit more depth, in my perspective, and meaning," he said. "So, the first act I play the sculptress, also single parent to Marie and Fritz. She is sculpting one of the biggest sculptures of the World’s Fair in Chicago. And then, in the second act, in Marie’s imagination, it is in her dream that her mom becomes a golden statue herself.”

And the World’s Fair setting seems a natural fit for the second act, Wheeldon says, when the magical Drosselmayer character - here named the Impressario - who has given Marie the nutcracker, takes her on a tour of the fair.

“It seemed like a no-brainer in a way, because the international pavilions at the World’s Fair are kind of the perfect setting for the, sort of, standard national dances of the second act.” he said.

The Chinese dance in Act II includes dragons weaving around Joffrey Ballet company member Fernando Duarte.
The Chinese dance in Act II includes dragons weaving around Joffrey Ballet company member Fernando Duarte.

In the ballet, Marie and the nutcracker, transformed into a handsome prince, are entertained by costumed dancers from Spain, Arabia, China, and Russia.

Familiar sights and sounds

Wheeldon says, despite the fresh take, he made sure his production delivers what is expected of a Nutcracker.

“We follow the structure of the story quite closely and the things that are dictated by the score, like the Christmas tree growing, the land of the snow, the Waltz of the Snowflakes," he said. "All of those are very much in this production.”

Greg Cameron says the Joffrey plans to present Wheeldon’s production every year, and take it on tour, so audiences outside Chicago can experience it as well.

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