Joffrey Ballet, Hancher to debut new Nutcracker

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The year’s first event on Hancher Auditorium’s new stage lacked showy lights, glitzy costumes, and staggering production value, but it made up for that in significance.

The Joffrey Ballet will debut a new production of The Nutcracker this December, choreographed by Tony Award-winner Christopher Wheeldon.

Hancher will serve as a producing sponsor and host five preview productions of the ballet December 1-4 before its world premiere in Chicago on December 10, Hancher Executive Director Chuck Swanson announced during a press conference in Hancher on April 12.

Ashley Wheater, artistic director of The Joffrey Ballet, and April Daly, leading artist of The Joffrey Ballet, joined Swanson on stage.

Wheeldon’s production will replace Robert Joffrey’s The Nutcracker, which the company has been performing since 1987, when Hancher commissioned it.

“A production that has given us so much for so many years, the reality was that it was completely falling apart,” Wheater said.

Wheater, who danced in the original 1987 production on the old Hancher stage, has seen costumes become worn down, more patches added each year.

That is the main reason this $4 million production budget includes a maintenance cost. Hancher will provide a commission gift of $500,000. As of the conference, $3 million has been raised, Wheater said.

The costumes will not be the only thing changed in the show. Though Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s iconic soundtrack will remain – performed by the Chicago Philharmonic and the Iowa Orchestra for the run of the show in each location – the setting and story will be altered.

“The setting is in Chicago during the construction of the famed Columbian Exhibition, a World’s Fair that had the eyes of the world,” Wheater read from Wheeldon’s description.

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“Perhaps even more significantly, the ballet’s central protagonist, the child Marie, who is to be the wildly imaginative daughter of a worker at the fair,” he said. “No longer set in a home of a privileged Victorian family, but in a simple worker’s hut, nestled amongst the vast construction of the fairground. This is to be the story of an immigrant worker’s child, a dreamer who has very little but, through the epic magical journey of Christmas, gains a great deal.”

This is the latest chapter in a rich story of partnership between Hancher and the Joffrey, Swanson said.

“You have a world class theater and I think that you have always had world class art,” Wheater said.
The Nutcracker’s artistic team will gather in Iowa City for weeks before opening night. The team includes: puppeteer and MacArthur Genius Basil Twist; five-time Tony-winning lighting designer Natasha Katz; Tony-winning projection designer Ben Pearcy; Tony-nominated costume and set designer Julian Crouch; and Caldecott Medal-winning author and illustrator Brian Selznick.

Though it won’t host the official premiere, Hancher looks forward to their role in the production, Swanson said.

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