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It’s a truth universally acknowledged that any ballet company worth its sugar plums must have a production of Nutcracker as part of its holiday season repertoire. And for nearly three decades, through its final performance at Chicago’s Auditorium Theatre in December 2015, the Joffrey Ballet was well served by its uniquely Victorian-American setting of the classic. It was choreographed by founding artistic director Robert Joffrey shortly before his death, and featured major contributions from Gerald Arpino.

From left: Ashley Wheater, Anastacia Holden, Christopher Wheeldon and Joan Sebastián Zamora rehearse The Nutcracker (photo by Todd Rosenberg, courtesy Joffrey Ballet)

Now the Joffrey is about to get a brand-new $4 million version of the ballet, choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon. He has assembled a stellar team of collaborators, including set and costume designer Julian Crouch, author and illustrator Brian Selznick, puppeteer Basil Twist, lighting designer Natasha Katz and projection designer Benjamin Pearcy. And while the production will retain the Tchaikovsky score, and many of the ballet’s classic elements, the story will be reimagined with a distinctly Chicago backdrop.

Set during the construction of the city’s fabled 1893 World’s Fair, the family at the ballet’s center will not be the usual group of upper-class sophisticates. Rather, the story will revolve around the female sculptor who worked on the Exposition’s iconic statue of Columbia, and her daughter, whose friends are the children of laborers working on the fair. The character of Drosselmeyer, the magician, will be based on the great urban planner Daniel Burnham, and the ethnic variations will be inspired by the array of international pavilions that were a notable element, including those from Egypt, Germany and Venice.

“This version will be full of surprises and more cohesive storytelling,” says Joffrey artistic director Ashley Wheater. “Thousands of Chicago kids come to see our production each year, and I think they don’t quite relate to the story as it has been told. This will be a Nutcrackerabout making magic out of everyday things.” —Hedy Weiss

From left: Ashley Wheater, Anastacia Holden, Christopher Wheeldon and Joan Sebastián Zamora rehearse The Nutcracker (photo by Todd Rosenberg, courtesy Joffrey Ballet)

It's a truth universally acknowledged that any ballet company worth its sugar plums must have a production of Nutcracker as part of its holiday season repertoire. And for nearly three decades, through its final performance at Chicago's Auditorium Theatre in December 2015, the Joffrey Ballet was well served by its uniquely Victorian-American setting of the classic. It was choreographed by founding artistic director Robert Joffrey shortly before his death, and featured major contributions from Gerald Arpino.

Now the Joffrey is about to get a brand-new $4 million version of the ballet, choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon. He has assembled a stellar team of collaborators, including set and costume designer Julian Crouch, author and illustrator Brian Selznick, puppeteer Basil Twist, lighting designer Natasha Katz and projection designer Benjamin Pearcy. And while the production will retain the Tchaikovsky score, and many of the ballet's classic elements, the story will be reimagined with a distinctly Chicago backdrop.

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Whenever The Joffrey Ballet needs a bravura allegro dancer, Allison Walsh, a powerful natural jumper, is at the ready. But at 25, this small, muscular, dark-eyed dancer—who joined The Joffrey as an apprentice in 2004 and was invited into the company the following year—has started to develop a new profile.

 

Ashley Wheater, The Joffrey’s artistic director, has been helping Walsh find another aspect of her talent. He told her: “You are a powerhouse, so now work on being a ballerina, and don’t always hit so hard. Be more nuanced.” While Walsh remains ever ready to soar—and has been tapped in recent seasons to perform a wide range of new works by such choreographers as Edwaard Liang, Jessica Lang and James Kudelka, as well as to dance the lead in Twyla Tharp’s demanding Waterbaby Bagatelles—she also has begun exploring the subtleties of adagio and partnering. Not surprisingly, she has jumped into the process with her usual brio. —Hedy Weiss

 

Allison Walsh: Things changed for me at The Joffrey with the arrival of Ashley Wheater as artistic director, although I already had begun doing new roles. I love Ashley’s classes and feel they’ve improved my technique. And his advice about becoming a real ballerina—his belief that I could be doing more principal roles but first I had to see myself in that way—really started to change my thinking.

 

Edwaard Liang, who asked me to learn a solo and pas de deux for his Age of Innocence last year, also had an impact. He told me I had a great adagio; I had never thought that. And working on his piece with my partner, Matthew Adamczyk, was a terrific experience, because I usually dance by myself and depend on myself. I had to give up some of that self-reliance and let the boy be in control. It irked me at first, because I like to lead, but I learned how to compromise and communicate.

We also worked recently with James Kudelka. He knew exactly what he wanted, and he likes things danced with full force, so that was natural for me. We were all dressed in long tulle skirts, so we looked classical, but he wanted us to really work our legs and feet, move quickly and take the classical line to an extreme.

 

In the company, I now keep my eye on Victoria Jaiani and Christine Rocas because adagio comes so naturally to them, and you can learn so much from other dancers. Ultimately, you really are on your own as a professional dancer. And as you get older, you become more responsible for your own progress.



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