At its 1892 premiere, Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker went over like a stocking full of coal. St. Petersburg critics called it a "failed experiment" and "an insult." Only in Cold War America did it become the Christmas ballet, and while that process began in San Francisco, what made it a national tradition was a refugee who had danced the Nutcracker as a teenager in Russia, George Balanchine. For his New York City Ballet, Balanchine created a magical version in 1954 ; it was broadcast nationally in 1957 and 1958, and since then, The Nutcracker has bloomed annually all over America.
This winter, it's thriving most vigorously (and colorfully) not in New York or San Francisco but in Iowa. The whole world will be watching as the Joffrey Ballet previews its first new Nutcracker in a generation, in five performances Dec. 1-4 at Hancher in Iowa City. Meanwhile, Ballet Quad Cities continues its collaboration with Orchestra Iowa in Courtney Lyon's remarkable choreography (in Cedar Rapids and Davenport), and wcfsymphony unveils a new production of Duke Ellington's jazz version of the Nutcracker by the award-winning artist Gary Kelley in Cedar Falls (my colleague Jacqueline Halbloom will provide an interview on it later this week). Dozens of other performances are taking place in communities all over the state, from Council Bluffs to Dubuque, Sioux City to Fairfield, Ames, Des Moines, Iowa City, and more.
The Joffrey premiere is the international news, but it has a distinctly Iowa back story. Hancher executive director Chuck Swanson told me about it Monday afternoon, and the audio is below. It includes a snowstorm that prevented costumes from reaching Iowa (so residents did the job), the world premiere of the 1987 Joffrey Nutcracker, the world premiere of Billboard, a ballet written for the Joffrey in 1993 by a notable fan, Prince, a Joffrey summer statewide tour in 2007, and much more.
Swanson also told me about the creative team collaborating on the new Nutcracker. It brings together more artistic genius than a typical Nobel Prize banquet, and is led by:
- Christopher Wheeldon, the choreogapher, who has won the Tony (for An American in Paris), Obie, Olivier, and many other awards. Wheeldon was solo dancer for the Balanchine-founded New York City Ballet, and eventually became that company's first-ever Artist in Residence and Resident Choreographer. He has choreographed for the Royal Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, San Francisco Ballet, Pennsylvania Ballet, Dutch National Ballet, Royal Swedish Ballet, Bolshoi Ballet, National Ballet of Canada, and Metropolitan Opera, and is Associate Artist of Sadler’s Wells Theatre.
- Brian Selznick, the dramatist, who is the Caldecott Medal–winning author of The Invention of Hugo Cabret, which was adapted into the Academy Award–winning film Hugo by Martin Scorsese;
- Julian Crouch, the scenic and costume designer, who has won the Obie, Olivier, Critic's Circle and other major awards. He has done major projects not only on Broadway but also for the Metropolitan Opera, Berlin Staatsoper, Salzburg Festival, and many other leading theatrical houses.
- Natasha Katz, the lighting designer, who has won five Tony Awards, for An American in Paris, Once, Frozen, and more;
- Ben Pearcy, the projection designer, who has won Tony Awards for An American in Paris, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and Big Fish.
The concept Selznick came up with for this new Nutcracker is thrilling just to hear about. He sets it a year after the St. Petersburg fiasco and a world away - in Chicago in 1893 during the World's Fair. Tchaikovsky's original took place in an aristocratic home, but the new Joffrey version locates the magical Christmas in a poor immigrant household on the South Side.
The family's mother is danced by the irresistible April Daly, who embodies one more element of the new Nutcracker. Now a Joffrey star ballerina, Daly was one of the children involved in Hancher's 1987 Nutcracker premiere. As Swanson explains in the interview, after the Hancher premiere, the Joffrey took their Nutcracker to Washington D.C. but didn't have time to audition children there, so it flew in 65 Iowa kids. Many of them - 29 years older- will be attending the new production at Hancher this week.
They illustrate Chuck's biggest takeaway: that a great Nutcracker can be a lifetime memory, even a life-changing experience. Wherever you are in Iowa, consider attending one this year, and bringing along a child, a friend, or an elder. It's magic, and we are living in its current world capital.