Friday, December 23, 2016

New 'Nutcracker' Inspired by Chicago World's Fair, is Evolution of Tale & Tradition

“Most “Nutcrackers” are about well-off children who already have a whole lot of toys and are about to get even more. I wanted to explore more complex storytelling — holding on to the Tchaikovsky score, which I love, and all the things that audiences expect to have happen in this ballet... And I wanted the central focus to be on how children — without the usual aristocratic manners, and without much in terms of material things — use their imagination.” (Wheeldon - source)
It's Nutcracker season, and while there have been a few interesting adaptations to challenge the tradition, Chicago now has its own unique variation, thanks to the Joffrey Ballet commissioning the work from Christopher Wheeldon, created out out of the history of the city itself. Unlike the usual story of privileged children getting presents and more, the heroine in this story is the child of a single, working-class, immigrant mother and the setting is the wintery Christmas Eve before the World's Fair in the late 1800's - leaving a lot of room to explore the construction of wonder and magic, as well as cultural diversity.

Wonderfully, setting the production during this historical event, means it's apt and relevant that the use of technology, (such as projection art, mechanical set devices and the multi-media presentation of puppetry alongside ever changing visual wonders and 'tesla lighting'), be incorporated as part of the story telling and not just part of the stagecraft and background. The transformations in the scenes and the characters throughout, echo the changing perspective on the world at the time, thanks to the fantastical inventions and wonders being showcased that seemed beyond imagination, wowing and influencing both workers and visitors of the extraordinary expo.

We like to think this is also indicative of the change happening in this Nutcracker's tale telling, but more on that later. First we'll share more about what the production and story are actually like. (Heads-up: watch for the delightful little nuts!)

Take a look at the trailer:
Here's a little on how the concept developed from Chicago Sun Times' interview with Wheeldon:
Wheeldon and the Joffrey’s artistic director, Ashley Wheater... had both read Erik Larson’s 2003 bestseller, “The Devil in the White City,” and they sensed the Exposition (“minus the serial murderer,” as Wheeldon quipped), was exactly the right magical environment against which the ballet could be set, with the construction of the fair seen though a child’s eye. The fact that the Joffrey’s home stage, the landmark Auditorium Theatre, was completed in 1889, made the whole thing seem even more ideal.  (FTNH: Not to mention that historically this takes place a few days after this ballet of Tchaikovsky's premiered in Russia!) 
But there was a dilemma to solve: The fair ran from May 1 to Oct. 30, 1893, while the story had to unfold on a snowy Christmas eve. “We could either ignore history, or set the story in the post-fair ruins, or set it five months before the fair opens, while it was under construction. We chose the latter. We also found a photograph of what looked like a wooden worker’s shack on the fairgrounds, and that became our touchstone. The fair was built by many immigrant laborers, especially Poles, and we envisioned this shack as the place in which one of the many female sculptors for the fair worked. She is a single mother with a young daughter, Marie, and a son, and the ballet is Marie’s dream version of the fair. We also reimagined two of the ballet’s characters to create an element of romance, with the sculptress more or less taking over what is usually the Sugar Plum Fairy role, while Drosselmeyer, the magician, has been renamed The Great Impresario.” (And as Wheeldon describes him, he is “part Daniel Burnham, the visionary urban designer who planned the fair, along with a bit of P.T. Barnum and Nikolai Tesla, that mad scientist of electricity.”) 

Here's an example from See Chicago Dance, which describes some of the delightful differences that still follow the Nutcracker traditions, but in a new form:
We are in theater mode from the get-go, with a clear class divide of Chicago’s rich and poor at holiday time. Tchaikovsky’s traditional living room party scene music illuminates instead an urban environment where rich and poor intersect, street urchins steal what they can from unsuspecting shoppers, and rats lurk behind every corner (Basil Twist’s whimsically diabolical puppets). The resident Rat-Catcher (a wry Rory Hohenstein, with his own pet rodent perched on his hat) contrasts with The Great Impresario of the Fair (Miguel Angel Blanco), a magical and mysterious counterpart to Hoffman’s original Drosselmeyer.
Wheeldon’s Nutcracker magic reaches a pinnacle of wonder in the transformation of the scrawny pine sapling into a friendly version of the Little Shop of Horrors Monster, completely overwhelming the stage, proscenium, and audience with its massive branches and six-foot-tall pinecones. The Rat Catcher becomes the Rat King, the battle between the rats and toy soldiers unspools with predictable humor, and the Nutcracker Prince’s victory transforms the puppet Nutcracker into the handsome Nutcracker Prince who literally sweeps Marie off her feet and into a snowy wonderland. There they dance a luscious Snow Pas de Deux with elegance and charm, exuding the joy of young love. 

And here's some more nuggets excerpted from the NYTimes:
For the new Joffrey production, Brian Selznick’s story, the sets and costumes by Julian Crouch and Basil Twist’s puppetry turn out to be as crucial as the choreography. I loved learning about Chicago history from their work.There are rats, not the usual “Nutcracker” mice, and a menacing Rat Catcher. 
When the Christmas tree (a poor specimen) grows magically huge in Marie’s dream, it fills the stage, as if the action were occurring within its branches. And though the rats are later played by dancers, they’re most memorable when we see them as puppets, running along upper levels of the scenery and across the floor. As usual in “The Nutcracker,” they’re defeated in a battle with the title character and his toy soldiers (some of them cavalry).
From a wide range of reviews, it seems to be an adaptation that delights audiences and brings a new and different appreciation to what can often seem a fairly light and meaningless story (if you're not familiar with E.T.A. Hoffmann's original, at least). While critic reviews are mostly very positive, a few feel the work has yet to fully mature, although delight is clearly an element that frequents throughout.

The success so far, since opening night at the beginning of December, indicates Wheeldon's production will now be a regular part of the repertoire, and possibly a production that other companies may embrace over time as well.

What we're very interested in, is seeing America begin to "own" it's annual tradition of the Christmas production. Though Nutcracker has its origins in story, music and choreography in other lands, it's the United States that fell in love with the ballet as a nation and made it a yearly tradition across the country (something that spread from San Francisco and New York to the rest of the country after Balanchine's production in the 1960's). This may be the first time, however, that the magic and wonder of the story, has been birthed out of the country in which it is celebrated. It's an evolution of the tale and tradition and we're curious to see if America will love it's own magic as much as it has loved the enchantment that tip-toed in (literally) from other lands... even as it acknowledges the magic of many lands settling in the US, making a new home.

Wheeldon's Nutcracker is playing in Chicago until December 30th this year - and if you're able to go, we'd love to hear what you thought. (More information on tickets and times HERE.)

We'll finish with some delighted audience responses and more glimpses of this 'wonder-filled' production.

1 comment:

  1. I actually saw this and have a post scheduled to go out in a few days!