When we go to the Nutcracker, we expect to be transported to a world that's both magical and familiar: the timeless Tchaikovsky music, the classic tale of a little girl and her Nutcracker prince, the sugary Land of Sweets. Yet when the Joffrey Ballet presented the world premiere of Christopher Wheeldon's new Nutcracker last year, audiences got a uniquely Chicagoan production that turns the original story on its head. Here, Marie is a poor Polish immigrant whose family lives in a shack on the construction grounds of Chicago's 1863 World's Columbian Exposition. The result is both daring and visually spectacular.
But a lot of work goes into making that magic look...well, magical. A new PBS documentary, Making a New American NUTCRACKER, follows the Joffrey Ballet, Wheeldon and his stellar creative team as they build the ballet from the ground up.
While the documentary is full of the kind of behind-the-scenes footage dancers love, it also reveals the important reasoning behind the revamped story. The Columbian Exposition setting was the brainchild of Joffrey artistic director Ashley Wheater, and both he and Wheeldon found the traditional Nutcracker story's message somewhat troubling. Wheeldon notes that the protagonist is typically a privileged, wealthy child. "And then she falls asleep and dreams of more," says Wheeldon. "More candy, more entertainment."
Slowly, they cobble together a different kind of story, enlisting children's book author Brian Selznick to write the libretto. In their narrative, Marie is the daughter of a single mother (who is sculpting the Exposition's golden statue), while the Drosselmeyer character takes the shape of the fair's architect Daniel Burnham, aka The Great Impresario. The film contains plenty of rehearsal and stage footage, as well as commentary by Joffrey dancers Amanda Assucena, Yoshihisa Arai, April Daly, Dylan Gutierrez and Jeraldine Mendoza. But what's even more fascinating is the intense planning by Wheeldon's production team—designer Julian Crouch, puppeteer Basil Twist and lighting designer Natasha Katz—as they bring his ideas to life. Making a New American NUTCRACKER premieres on PBS stations nationwide in December (check your local listings) and will stream on pbs.org starting December 1. Until then, enjoy the exclusive sneak peek below.