Everything Nutcracker
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."

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Ballet Stars
Photo by Nathan Sayers for Pointe.

This is Pointe's August/September 2017 Cover Story. You can subscribe to the magazine here, or click here to purchase this issue.

With her sunny spirit and unaffected charm, Joffrey Ballet dancer Amanda Assucena is often cast as innocent characters like Marie or the Sugar Plum Fairy from The Nutcracker. But in Yuri Possokhov's The Miraculous Mandarin, a tabloid-like tale of corruption and cruelty, she played a chillingly manipulative seductress who lures men into the clutches of three street thugs. Dressed in leather shorts, a bra and corset, she was largely without mercy. And from the moment she emerged from the glass box that was her prison-like home—moving with angular, acrobatic choreography that seemed to turn her legs into daggers—it was clear she had nailed this enigmatic siren, even suggesting a hint of vulnerability and loneliness.

The 40-minute marathon of a work not only served as a showcase for Assucena's superb technique, but also revealed her impressive dramatic skills. "Amanda has a natural instinct for music and theater, and a dramatic sense that can convey any story," says Joffrey's artistic director Ashley Wheater. "She has shown herself to be remarkably mature as a person and an artist, and she's fearless in taking on demanding roles and technical challenges."

Add to this the fact that Assucena has a beautifully proportioned body and an innate musicality and it's easy to understand why the 23-year-old has enjoyed such a rapid-fire rise at the Joffrey.

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Assucena and Alberto Velazquez rehearse Christopher Wheeldon's new Nutcracker. Photo by Cheryl Mann, Courtesy Joffrey Ballet.

Though it's not quite fall, the Joffrey Ballet is in full holiday mode, prepping for the world premiere of Christopher Wheeldon's Nutcracker. In fact, you can catch a live-streamed rehearsal with Wheeldon and the company tomorrow (Thursday, September 8, 11:30 am to 1:30 pm Central) on the company's YouTube channel. Pointe spoke with company dancer Amanda Assucena about this reimagined holiday classic set in 1893 during the Chicago World's Fair.

 

How does the setting change the story?

Marie, our dreamer, is our version of Clara. She's a girl from the South Side of Chicago, the daughter of immigrants, workers of the fair. She's not very wealthy, which is different from other Nutcrackers. The second act is based on the actual World's Fair, so she dreams the Nutcracker is taking her through it and the divertissements are different countries.

 

What have rehearsals been like?

I'm learning the roles of Marie, her mother and the grand pas, so I've been in the studio with Chris all the time, all day. He is definitely one of my favorite choreographers to work with. He's a big name, but he's such a normal person, so nice and humble. And he allows you to communicate what feels good or if a step feels awkward.

 

What's it like being involved in the creation of a new full-length ballet?

Being in the studio for six hours a day learning choreography and trying to keep that in your mind has been challenging—but such a great challenge. For me, one of the best parts about ballet is figuring out steps, remembering them, putting them together with the music and seeing it come together and work.

 

How is Wheeldon approaching the famous party scene?

It's now called the "shack scene" since Marie lives in a shack with her mother. Some of the other workers from the World's Fair come to the party, and everybody brings something--a tree, some food or drinks. It's more about them coming together and trying to make something beautiful out of nothing for that one day of Christmas celebrations.

 

Do you have any advice for dancers on how to avoid burnout when they’re working on Nutcracker from now until the holidays?

We’ve all been doing it since we were little kids, but I still love it. My advice would be to remember what the audience is going to see. It’s our responsibility for them to feel like they just woke up from the most beautiful dream ever.

And enjoy the music. As much as we hear it all the time, it’s so perfect for the ballet, perfect for the season. It’s also great that it’s so popular because it only means that we are part of a Christmas tradition. Enjoy the music, enjoy the relationships with your other dancers and enjoy the choreography.

 

You can watch the trailer for the live stream here:

For more news on all things ballet, don't miss a single issue.

Boston Ballet's Irlan Silva

In every corps de ballet there are certain dancers who shine. Here are seven with bright futures ahead.

Amanda Assucena, Joffrey Ballet

Assucena in Krzystof Pastor's Romeo & Juliet

Cheryl Mann, Courtesy Joffrey Ballet

Not many first-year company members get the chance to perform a principal role, let alone two—but last season, the Joffrey Ballet's Amanda Assucena did just that. In addition to dancing the Sugar Plum Fairy in the company's production of The Nutcracker, Assucena, then 19, was cast as the lead in Krzysztof Pastor's Romeo & Juliet. "Dancing Juliet was something that I never expected my first year as a professional," she says.

Trained in her native Brazil, Assucena moved to the U.S. and spent four years at The Harid Conservatory before joining the trainee program at the Joffrey Academy of Dance in Chicago. After just one year, she received a company contract. With out-of-this-world extensions, spot-on technique and a delicate softness to her movement, it's easy to see why she's getting noticed. But it's her ability to embody characters honestly that sets her apart. With Joffrey's wide-ranging rep, Assucena hopes to absorb as much as she can from her fellow company members.

Now that Juliet and Sugar Plum are under her belt, what does she hope for next? "One of my dream roles is Giselle," she says. "After the Rain, Infra and Chroma are obsessions of mine, too." —Margaret Hermanson

Nicole Padilla, Sarasota Ballet

Padilla in Frederick Ashton's Birthday Offering

Gene Schiavone, Courtesy Sarasota Ballet

Before joining Sarasota Ballet, Nicole Padilla had barely heard of Frederick Ashton. But under directors Iain Webb and Margaret Barbieri—who have introduced a dozen of the British choreographer's works to the repertoire—Padilla has become not only an Ashton aficionado, but an accomplished interpreter of his work. During the company's recent Sir Frederick Ashton Festival, she triumphed in the peppy Elaine Fifield role in Birthday Offering, flawlessly executed the fouettés of the Blue Girl in Les Patineurs and showed off her range in both the polka solo and the "Scotch Rhapsody" in Façade.

The 26-year-old Texas native spent two years at the University of Oklahoma and another at the Joffrey Ballet School before joining Dayton Ballet. She came to Sarasota Ballet in 2011, but sat out most of her second season with a back injury. After recovering, she quickly made headway, dancing in the company's performances of Les Patineurs at the Kennedy Center's Ballet Across America festival last June (and drawing praise from several critics). "I'm more the athletic, jumping, turning type," she admits. Her dream role? "Kitri from Don Q," she says. "I'm just not a swan."

Padilla, who married in June, also teaches at the Margaret Barbieri Conservatory of Dance, and is pursuing an elementary education degree at the University of South Florida. "How do I do it all?" she asks. "I have no idea." ­—Carrie Seidman

Kathryn Hosier, National Ballet of Canada

National Ballet of Canada's Kathryn Hosier

Sian Richards, Courtesy NBoC

Kathryn Hosier's long legs, trousered in black, shimmer under a hyper-articulated torso as she executes the fast, angular, punctuated arm movements of Marco Goecke's reimagined version of Le Spectre de la Rose. This is the same dancer who in pure classical mode can portray a Sleeping Beauty fairy or Swan Lake Spanish princess.

"What I love about the National Ballet is the sheer range of repertoire," says 23-year-old Hosier, thrilled that Goecke plucked her from the corps to dance the female lead in the North American premiere of Spectre in May. "It was a huge technical challenge, but also a big career break."

Born and initially trained in Champaign, Illinois, Hosier spent three finishing years at Canada's National Ballet School. Hired into the company as an apprentice in 2009, she was taken into the corps within six months. While competition for roles is always intense, last year Hosier was center stage in No. 24, an ultra-physical duet choreographed by company member Guillaume Côté.

Hosier has no illusions about the waiting game that's often a corps member's lot. Still, landing an opening night lead has whetted her appetite. "Once you get a taste, you want more and more and more." —Michael Crabb

Julia Rowe, San Francisco Ballet

Rowe (left) in Helgi Tomasson's Giselle

Erik Tomasson, Courtesy SFB

There's a breezy sweetness to Julia Rowe's peasant pas de cinq variation in San Francisco Ballet's Giselle. Nothing in the intricate steps looks calculated and yet, there's a world of thoughtfulness behind the ease.

"So much of that variation for me is about finding nuances in the music and the phrasing," she says. "But there's also discovering more in what you can bring besides just steps. In order for Giselle's descent into madness to be heartbreaking, there has to be an overwhelming sense of joy beforehand."

A native of Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, Rowe trained for 11 years at Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet. In 2005, she attended SFB's summer program because it was the home of one of her idols, Tina LeBlanc, and by 2007 had enrolled in the school year-round. Afterwards she joined Oregon Ballet Theatre, where she was nominated for a Princess Grace Award in 2010. Five years later, however, she came back to SFB, attracted by the diverse repertoire and the artists with whom she'd get to work.

Since then she's charmed audiences with her fluid musicality and graceful épaulement, moving easily between the classicism of Giselle, the precision of Mark Morris' Maelstrom and the dazzle of Liam Scarlett's Hummingbird.
"It's intimidating, exciting and incredibly artistically fulfilling for me to be in this kind of environment," she says. "There's always something new and challenging." —Mary Ellen Hunt

Emily Bowen, Houston Ballet

Bowen and artists of Houston Ballet in Stanton Welch's The Ladies

Amitava Sarkar, Courtesy Houston Ballet

Watching Houston Ballet's petite Emily Bowen barrel downstage in a whirl of pirouettes, it's no wonder that artistic director Stanton Welch selected her as the "flute" for his recent The Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra. She excels at Welch's flair for flash, but never loses her razor-sharp punctuation. "Stanton tends to cast me in roles that test my ability to move lightning fast and be technically precise—all while covering large amounts of space," says Bowen.

Bowen trained under Patricia McBride and Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux at the North Carolina Dance Theatre School of Dance and at Houston Ballet Academy, where she competed in the Prix de Lausanne before joining the company in 2006.

A skilled chameleon, she can transition between a vintage, china-doll ballerina excelling in old-school delicacy one minute and a pocket-sized ball of fire in William Forsythe's The Vertiginous Thrill of Exactitude the next. Her extensive rep includes lead roles such as Lise in La Fille mal gardée and the pas de deux in "Rubies."

Next season, Bowen looks forward to reprising Edwaard Liang's Murmuration. "I was a part of the world premiere last season, and the response was so overwhelming," she says. "It holds a very special place in my heart." —Nancy Wozny

Meaghan Dutton-O'Hara, New York City Ballet

Dutton-O'Hara in Peter Martins' Jeu de Cartes

Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB

It's not often that a corps member nabs your attention when there are principals onstage at New York City Ballet. But Meaghan Dutton-O'Hara has been stealing the spotlight since she joined the company as an apprentice in 2011. Last season, she maneuvered effortlessly through George Balanchine's Raymonda Variations, crisply elegant despite her long limbs. Even standing in a row of dancers framing the stage, a simple gesture of her arm can be arresting—as if the music plays from her port de bras.

Raised in Maryland, 20-year-old Dutton-O'Hara trained at the Frederick School of Classical Ballet. A summer intensive at the School of American Ballet in 2007 led to her staying on year-round. "NYCB had always been my dream," she says.
Since joining the company, Dutton-O'Hara has been pursuing an undergraduate degree at nearby Fordham University, taking classes in the morning before company class. (She wants to major in either math or economics.) "I knew if I took a break from my education, I wouldn't go back," she says.

Dutton-O'Hara's main focus, though, remains dancing, hoping to someday perform the leads in Serenade and Symphony in Three Movements. She's already begun to show the subtlety of phrasing that sets dancers apart in NYCB's repertoire. Her secret? "Remember to dance for you. I think that's most rewarding for the audience, as well." —Shannon Woods

Irlan Silva, Boston Ballet

Silva in Boston Ballet's The Nutcracker

Gene Schiavone, Courtesy Boston Ballet

Watching Irlan Silva dance, you see a prince: jumps soaring with regal abandon, innate noble carriage, gorgeous feet and extensions. But what you won't see is the poverty-stricken favela where the 24-year-old grew up in Rio de Janeiro, or the years of scholarships, training and ballet competitions that fueled his rise. "I'm always thinking about what I passed through to get here," he says. "I have to keep pushing myself to be one of the best."

At 10, Silva started out learning to tap. But his natural flexibility and coordination led to a jazz scholarship at the Centro de Dança Rio. When his teacher encouraged him to try classical ballet, he admitted he'd never seen it before. "We didn't have access to theaters or culture," he says, so she took him to see a performance. "I was so impressed. I thought, 'Yes! I want to do that!' "

Hard training and competitions followed. At 17, he won Best Contemporary Dancer at Youth America Grand Prix. That same year, his performance at Prix de Lausanne led him to a contract with American Ballet Theatre II. There, his inspiring story was documented in the 2009 film Only When I Dance.

Silva joined Boston Ballet in 2011, attracted to its combination of classical and contemporary work. "I feel more free doing contemporary," he says, although his goal is to excel at both. So far, he is excelling across the board; this spring, Silva danced his first principal role in Harald Lander's Etudes.

When it comes to the future, Silva knows what he wants. "My dream is to be a principal dancer with Boston Ballet," he says. If this past season is any measure, he is well on his way. —Ashley Rivers

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