The Joffrey Ballet's Beloved Nutcracker

December 3, 2012
Michigan Avenue Magazine
Kerry Reid


A German wrote the original story, and a Russian composed the unforgettable score, but today the Nutcracker is as treasured an American holiday tradition as any. And for the past 25 years, the Joffrey Ballet has offered up “America’s No. 1 Nutcracker,” to the delight of both Chicago and its premier ballet company, which benefits greatly from its own holiday tradition.

The tagline for the Joffrey’s annual holiday gift to Chicago dance lovers reflects not just the American setting, but also that this version of the beloved ballet—the last piece created by founder Robert Joffrey—tours every year beyond the Joffrey’s home at the Auditorium Theatre. This year, the company will visit Cleveland for the first time for five performances, in addition to 22 performances in Chicago. The Nutcracker has also become a huge generator of ticket revenues for the Joffrey, helping it invest in other elements of programming, including new work.

According to Executive Director Christopher Clinton Conway, 45 percent of the Joffrey’s annual ticket sales come from the Nutcracker—and its success tends to be a bellwether for the rest of the season. (The company reported total annual revenues of more than $14.75 million in the 2011 fiscal year against expenses of a little more than $13.5 million.) Says Conway, “When we see how it does, that allows us to plan and execute things in the second half of the year that are potentially on hold. Those could be commissions [for new work], community programs—those kinds of things.”

Conway also notes that 16 percent of the Joffrey’s annual operating budget goes to the Nutcracker, but that the show more than pays for itself. However, those costs can be hefty, including everything from salaries for 45 to 50 dancers and for the musicians in the Chicago Sinfonietta to costs associated with the large children’s company. The kids themselves aren’t paid, but Conway points out that their transportation is subsidized and the Joffrey pays for backstage chaperones for more than 100 children.

One of the challenges the Joffrey faces is turning the Nutcracker audiences into repeat patrons. “We do go after, in a very concerted way, anyone who buys tickets to the Nutcracker,” says Conway. “But it does have a low conversion rate.” He notes that other story ballets such as Cinderella are more likely to appeal to families who see the Nutcracker than other contemporary work.

Additionally, by aggressively marketing the production as “America’s No. 1 Nutcracker,” Conway has helped the Joffrey jockey for a more favorable pole position in the glut of holiday-themed shows and spectaculars that flood the Chicago market every year. “If you get downtown and you see a sign that says America’s No. 1 Nutcracker, you think, That’s the one I want to go to.”

Beyond the spreadsheets, however, lies a bittersweet story of the show’s creation. Ashley Wheater, the Joffrey’s artistic director since 2007, was present at the birth of the company’s Nutcracker in 1987, as Robert Joffrey’s health declined. (He died in 1988 at age 57.)

“We were in Iowa City for the summer, and we put together the Nutcracker,” says Wheater. “And because of [Joffrey’s] illness, he wasn’t always able to be there.” Joffrey’s cofounder, the late Gerald Arpino, choreographed most of the second act, including the lush and much-praised “Waltz of the Flowers.” However, Wheater notes, “The thing that’s really solid about this production and its concept is very much Robert Joffrey’s. And the part that speaks to his meticulous eye and his follow-through in the story line is the party scene.”

That scene comes up frequently when Joffrey artists and staff discuss the Nutcracker. In the first-act centerpiece, Clara receives the nutcracker from Uncle Drosselmeyer, while dolls are distributed to the other children. Each doll comes to life in the second act, so each has to register with the audience during the party. This makes it a complex enterprise for the principal dancers, especially for whoever is playing Clara.

Anastacia Holden, who has danced the role of Clara for eight years at the Joffrey (the company uses multiple casts for the show each season), notes, “Especially in the party scene, there’s so much to remember—props, counts to do—so you’re not missing anything.” The Joffrey version differs from other versions in that adult dancers perform the principal children’s roles of Clara and her brother, Fritz. George Balanchine’s version, created originally for the New York City Ballet, uses actual children in those roles. But as noted, the Joffrey uses a large children’s company, which is particularly prominent at the party. Says Holden: “There are so many kids in the party scene. They are in there for the whole time, and if they are a little bit out of control, part of your job as Clara or Fritz is to keep them in line.”

Currently, the Joffrey version is drenched in Victorian nostalgia— “like a picture print by Currier and Ives,” as the lyrics to “Sleigh Ride” put it. “I still think in America we like to look back at that time,” says Wheater. “So the production and the scenic idea is that it’s all like a paper cutout book.” However, after a quarter century, Wheater thinks it’s time to revisit the conceptual framework.

“A lot of things have happened in 25 years,” says Wheater, adding, “I see us taking a look at the Nutcracker in a couple of years and asking, ‘How do we make [the ballet] a relevant work for today?’ This is a wonderful production, but we have to say, ‘Is the story of Clara, this little rich girl with lots and lots of gifts and the happy home and everything else—is it a real story? What is the percentage of people who relate to this today?’”

Starting over with a new version won’t be cheap. Conway estimates that it will cost between $3 million and $4 million, but adds, “It is a very exciting sponsorship opportunity [for a corporation]. The Nutcracker [draws] our largest audience. It sits down here in Chicago for a month and also travels to at least one other city every year. It’s a chance to be associated with a family-friendly production for 20 or 25 years.” Conway also says that the Joffrey is not averse to “above the line” sponsorship, such as “Coca-Cola presents Joffrey’s Nutcracker.” “I would be anxious to take Coke’s call,” he says with a laugh.

As anyone who has ever changed up a holiday menu or decorating scheme knows, altering a beloved tradition carries some risk of backlash. “There is a thin line between what [audiences] remember nostalgically and freshening it up,” says Maureen Dwyer Smith, the founder of the Women’s Board of the Joffrey. She also notes, “The actual nutcracker is in fact held together with duct tape. He’s sweet as can be, but when you see him up close and hold him, he’s had a lot of repairs. It sort of symbolizes our show.”

Part of the annual “freshening up” involves the work of Marianne Marks, the head of wardrobe for the Joffrey, and her crew, who have to keep about 200 costumes—many of them original from the first production—in tip-top shape while being mindful of the bottom line. Says Marks, “We’re not throwing money away, but are we spending it wisely by replacing [costumes] if we’re going to do a whole new Nutcracker in, say, two years?” Last year, the wardrobe department replaced the original hand-painted costumes for “Waltz of the Flowers” with digitally printed petals. Each of the costumes still features its own unique petal design, but going digital saved money—instead of $8,000 per costume, the new flowers came in at around $2,500 each. “Hopefully, the overall look is still true to the design,” says Marks.

Whatever shape a new version might entail down the road, Wheater finds the company’s “golden goose” still delights audiences. “I think we have a lot of subscribers who have seen the Nutcracker, but I keep saying to them that in its own right it’s a classic and it has withstood the test of time,” he says, adding with an air of mischievous understatement, “There is some kind of wonderful dancing in it.”