By the time Robert Joffrey’s production of “The Nutcracker” was ready for its world premiere in December, 1987, there was as much (if not more) drama going on behind the scenes as there was innovation on stage. And now, as the company prepares to celebrate the 28th annual — and final — presentation of Joffrey’s uniquely American take on the Russian classic it is worth looking backward. For in December 2016, an all new production of “The Nutcracker,” created by the Tony Award-winning choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, will arrive on stage, with Chicago’s 1893 Columbian Exposition as its backdrop.

Robert Joffrey had dreamed of creating his version of the 19th century ballet for almost 15 years, with visions of a Victorian American family dancing in his head. The Christmas eve party was to be set in the living room of Mayor Stahlbaum and his wife, whose home conjured New York City’s upper class in the 1860s. And the replicas of toys of that period — which Joffrey had begun collecting when he was still a boy himself — were to be stashed under the tree.

But in 1985 Joffrey learned he had AIDS (although he never named his condition), and as ‘The Nutcracker” took shape, several other Joffrey stalwarts — including Gerald Arpino, Scott Barnard and George Verdak —were called on to contribute sections of the choreography. By the time the $1 million dollar production debuted at the Hancher Auditorium in Iowa two years later, Joffrey was too weak to travel. But determined to take a bow with his dancers at its subsequent New York opening at City Center, he was brought on stage in a wheelchair that was quickly removed, and he was supported by his dancers who were stunned to see his dramatic decline.

“The Nutcracker” would turn out to be the very last ballet Joffrey ever made, but it became a staple of the Joffrey rep, introducing countless children to the world of ballet, providing opportunities for talented young students to shine alongside professionals, and reliably boosting box office revenues.

Ashley Wheater, now artistic director of the Joffrey, performed the role of Stahlbaum (as well as the Snow King) in that original production, and he will return to the stage to reprise the role of Stahlbaum at its final performance on Dec. 27.

“Robert Joffrey’s ‘The Nutcracker’ has been an indelible trademark of this company for 28 years,” said Wheater. “One reason it has lasted is its enormous charm, especially the first act party scene, which is Robert Joffrey’s through and through.”

The Joffrey “Nutcracker’s” last hurrah, a 24-performance engagement running Dec. 4 – 27 at the Auditorium Theatre, will feature the Chicago Philharmonic led by Joffrey music director Scott Speck, playing the beloved Tchaikovsky score. And the full Joffrey company will be joined by 118 young dancers from the Chicago area —as Party Girls and Boys, Polichinelles (Mother Ginger’s children), Battle Mice and Mounted Mice, Soldiers, Snow Tree Angels and Dolls. Also on duty will be vocalists from five different local children’s choirs.

Intriguing facts about Joffrey’s “The Nutcracker”:

— Since 1987, there have been approximately 500 performances of this production of the ballet and it has been seen by approximately 996,500 people.

— In addition to Chicago, the production has been performed in New York, Washington, D.C.; Los Angeles, Cleveland, Iowa City, St. Louis, Detroit,  and Omaha.

— Over the past four years, the Joffrey’s performances of “The Nutcracker” have accounted for approximately 52 percent of the company’s total season revenue.

— One significant innovation introduced into the ballet after the company moved to Chicago was the inclusion of a physically handicapped child in the party scene. It became a tradition after a handicapped child came to a “Nutcracker” audition and artistic director Gerald Arpino was so inspired by the child’s confidence that he decided to make this a permanent  part of the ballet’s casting.

— It was Robert Joffrey’s idea to commission Kermit Love (of “Sesame Street” fame) to create the ballet’s giant Mother Ginger puppet and mouse heads. Love had previously reconstructed Picasso’s original design for the ballet “Parade.”

— The production uses 100 pounds of “snow” in every performance – 50,000 pounds of the stuff over the 28 years of its existence.


By: Hedy Weiss

Originally posted at the Chicago Sun-Times