Everything Nutcracker

Don't Miss This Behind-the-Scenes PBS Documentary of Christopher Wheeldon's "Nutcracker" at Joffrey Ballet

Artists of the Joffrey Ballet in Christopher Wheeldon's "Nutcracker." Photo by Cheryl Mann, Courtesy Joffrey Ballet.

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.


Ballet Careers
Lenai Alexis Wilkerson. Christopher Duggan, Courtesy Michelle Tabnick Public Relations.

This is one of a series of stories on recent graduates' on-campus experiences—and the connections they made that jump-started their dance careers. Lenai Alexis Wilkerson graduated from University of Southern California with a BFA in dance (dance performance concentration) and a political science minor in 2019.

As Lenai Alexis Wilkerson looked at colleges, she wanted a school that would prepare her for two totally different professions: dancing and law. "I knew, pretty much when I was 16, that I wanted to go to law school," she says. "So I wanted the opportunity to have a dual college experience, where I could have a conservatory training style within a university and I could focus equally on my academics." When she auditioned for the inaugural class of University of Southern California's Glorya Kaufman School of Dance, she knew it was the right fit.

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Francisco Estevez, Courtesy Colorado Ballet Academy

When you're looking for a ballet program to take you to the next level, there are a lot of factors to consider. While it's tempting to look for the biggest name that will accept you, the savvy dancer knows that successful training has more to do with the attention and opportunities you'll get.

We put together a few of the most important things for dancers to look for in a summer or year-round training program, with the help of the experts at Colorado Ballet Academy:

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News
Nicolas Pelletier in Carmina Burana. Francisco Estevez, Courtesy Colorado Ballet.

Last week, Colorado Ballet interrupted Nutcracker rehearsals for an exciting announcement: Four dancers were being promoted. Though all made the jump from the company's corps de ballet, Nicolas Pelletier ascended directly to the rank of soloist, while Sean Omandam, Emily Speed and Melissa Zoebisch were promoted to demi-soloist. This news comes hot on the heels of last August's promotion of Francisco Estevez to principal.

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Courtesy School of Pennsylvania Ballet

While many of us are deep in Nutcracker duties, The School of Pennsylvania Ballet director James Payne has been looking further ahead, finalizing preparations for the school's summer intensive programs. In January, he and his staff will embark on a 24-city audition tour to scour the country for the best young dancers, deciding whether or not to offer them a spot—maybe even a scholarship—in the school's rigorous 5-week intensive focused on high-caliber ballet instruction. Though he'll be evaluating aspirants, he urges that as a student, you should be equally selective in choosing programs that could galvanize your training—and possibly even your career.

We got Payne's advice on strategizing your summer intensive plan before the audition cycle kicks in:

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