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Christopher Wheeldon’s Windy City Nutcracker

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)
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 Nutcracker about making magic out of everyday things.” —Hedy Weiss

Not So Nuts About Nutcracker?

There’s no denying the allure of everyone’s favorite holiday tradition, but sometimes you just need a change. Here’s a list of four non-Nutcracker options.

Bay Area audiences can try Smuin Contemporary American Ballet’s long-running The Christmas Ballet, which features both jazzy and classical numbers. The 2016 run starts November 18 and continues through December. “Our ever-changing program is a Bay Area alternative,” says artistic director Celia Fushille, who promises multiple world premieres. Ticket info:

Sarasota Ballet will perform its company premiere of Balanchine’s Jewels December 16–17, giving your sparkly ornaments a run for their money.
Ticket info:

Denver-based contemporary ballet company Wonderbound will premiere Snow, a magical new winter story December 13–22.
Ticket info:

Starting December 10, adventurous New York City audiences can attend Mark Morris Dance Group’s The Hard Nut, a zany, modern-dance take on Nutcracker replete with joyous, barefoot Snowflakes.
Ticket info:

A Parting Gift

For the past decade, Charlotte Ballet has performed artistic director Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux’s Nutcracker with a hodgepodge of sets and costumes cobbled together from the company’s inventory and outside purchases.

The Charlotte Ballet Nutcracker will feature sets by Alain Vaes and costumes by Holly Hynes. (Design by Holly Hynes, courtesy Charlotte Ballet)
The Charlotte Ballet Nutcracker will feature sets by Alain Vaes and costumes by Holly Hynes. (Design by Holly Hynes, courtesy Charlotte Ballet)

Now, thanks to a $1 million dollar donation, Bonnefoux can leave the company and community with a parting gift: a reimagined version of his 2006 Nutcracker, just in time for his 20th and final season as artistic director. “It’s going to be sumptuous,” Bonnefoux says. Starting in July 2017, Scottish Ballet assistant artistic director Hope Muir will assume Bonnefoux’s role.

The ballet will feature a cast of more than 100 dancers, and will be performed with live accompaniment by the Charlotte Symphony. Show dates are December 3–4, 13–18 and 21–23 at Charlotte’s Belk Theater, and December 10–11 in South Carolina with the Charleston Symphony Orchestra at the Charleston Gaillard Center.

—Steve Sucato

American Contemporary Ballet Thrives in Los Angeles

The last few years have seen notable company closures, including Silicon Valley Ballet in San Jose, California. But Los Angeles–based American Contemporary Ballet is moving in the opposite direction, extending its contract and filling out its now-year-round roster of dancers.

“We got the advice to grow slowly because it allows you to make your mistakes on a small scale,” says artistic director Lincoln Jones, who founded the company to present ballet as a musical art form. To whit, the repertoire includes work by Balanchine, Fred Astaire and Jones. Performances are always accompanied by live music.

Emily Parker and Mate Szentes rehearse Balanchine's Agon (photo by Anastasia Petukhova, courtesy ACB)
Emily Parker and Mate Szentes rehearse Balanchine’s Agon (photo by Anastasia Petukhova, courtesy ACB)

“We decided that after five years we would expand. In the past, summer has been our biggest season, but now we’re going to a 36-week contract, from May 8 to February 19.” The company currently has 8 women and 4 men, plus 6 apprentices for a total of 18—up from 14 dancers, in the past.

“The kind of work we do will be the same,” says Jones, referring to the company’s largely neoclassical repertoire. “But we’re adding a Nutcracker. And now we’ll be able to do larger-scale work.” Other changes include a burgeoning apprentice program and steps toward a full school. The company will keep its annual bicoastal auditions and continue to rehearse in its permanent home, the 32nd floor of a skyscraper in downtown L.A.

ACB has remained afloat despite a turbulent economy by pinpointing the kind of work that Angelenos want to see. “We knew that it would be hard to come into a city that lacks a long history of ballet,” Jones says. The company appealed to music fans by partnering with The Da Camera Society, a venerable presenter of chamber music, and enticed new audience members by performing in nontraditional venues like warehouses. “We hold a performance series with our artistic collaborators, like photographers and actors, who offer a different perspective on ballet. We want an audience that’s as knowledgeable about ballet as they can possibly be.” —Nicole Loeffler-Gladstone

Ballet All Over

BalletBoyz Brings Life

UK-based, all-male company BalletBoyz embarks on the North American leg of their international tour this January. The show, Life, features world premieres by Pontus Lidberg and Javier de Frutos, and kicks off on January 20 in British Columbia, Canada. The program has grand themes: Nothing less than life and death. It will hit spots in Alberta, as well as Portland, Fresno, Modesto, Long Beach and Palm Desert.

Ticket info:

Watch The Sleeping Beauty on the Big Screen

On January 22, a live performance of the Bolshoi Ballet’s The Sleeping Beauty will be screened in select theaters nationwide. Since lavish Russian productions rarely tour to the U.S., this is a special opportunity to see the Bolshoi’s dazzling dancers in action.

More information: