The Joffrey’s Nutcracker: A Story For Everyone
23 December 2019
The Joffrey Ballet is no stranger to reimagining the rules. Their fresh take on The Nutcracker, which debuted in 2016, has became a seasonal staple in Chicago. We sat down with Ashley Wheater, The Mary B. Galvin Artistic Director, to discuss the company’s interpretation of the classic tale, and how the performance has found new resonance with their audience.
Family at the Heart
In the traditional telling, The Nutcracker begins with a wealthy family throwing a party for their friends. In the Joffrey’s telling, rewritten by children’s author Brian Selznick, the story revolves around a working class immigrant family, come to Chicago to work on the grand opening of the 1893 World’s Fair. Rather than a party, young protagonist Marie and her family put on a potluck for family and friends in their small shack home.
Wheater describes the significance of this new storyline: “It’s a given that The Nutcracker has an amazing score by Tchaikovsky, but it hasn’t always had a fully comprehensive storyline. Many productions of The Nutcracker conclude at the end of the second act, and fail to return to the people that the ballet and the story began with.”
What makes the Joffrey’s Nutcracker truly shine is that at its heart, it is a story about people. “It really does begin with the story, and its characters,” Wheater explains. “Approaching it from the angle of this family, it allows you to ask, what matters to us as human beings? What we truly identify with is community, family and support.”
A Story for Everyone
When The Joffrey Ballet engaged choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, at the core of every conversation was the belief that The Nutcracker should be for everyone. The new storyline is a central part of achieving the Joffrey’s desire for accessibility in theater — and focusing on a working class family allows a more expansive audience to relate to the performance.
The Joffrey has a long history of creating dance with a broad reach. The Nutcracker is just a small moving piece of this larger motion making dance, and their company, something that’s for everyone. To reach more people, a higher level of relatability and engagement is required. “We don’t want our audience just to come and watch,” Wheater says, “we want to reach out to our audience as much as we want them to reach out to us. What I love about the company is that we have always reached beyond the orchestra pit and the footlights.”
Beyond the Stage
The Joffrey has indeed reached beyond the stage with The Nutcracker. Each year, during the performance’s run, the company brings in over 5,000 children from all over Chicago, mainly from Chicago Public Schools. Each child receives a “Passport to the World’s Fair” when they attend The Nutcracker, to reinforce the connection to the story and characters. Wheater describes to us: “At the start of our performances, we ask the audience who out there has their passport, and all the kids raise their hands.” In addition to seeing the ballet, the children learn from Joffrey’s in-school program about the story of The Nutcracker, the iconic Chicago World Fair and the significance of such a historical event to the city.
For attendees from every generation, the Joffrey’s Nutcracker resonates. With the performance in its fourth year, it has engendered a fierce love in the hearts of its audience members, with some people coming back three, even four, times every year.
Wheater puts it best, “To go to the theater, to embrace the humanity and to let this beautiful story unfold, it is a reprieve from the world for a few hours. And I think everybody should give that gift to themselves.”
For more information about The Nutcracker and to purchase tickets, visit The Joffrey Ballet’s website here.