Interview: Joffrey Ballet’s Nutcracker rings in the holiday season at Hancher

The Nutcracker

Hancher Auditorium
Thursday, Dec. 1 at 7:30 p.m.
Friday, Dec. 2 at 7:30 p.m.
Saturday, Dec. 3 at 2 & 7:30 p.m.
Sunday, Dec. 4 at 2 p.m.

Illustration from ‘Wonderstruck,’ by Brian Selznick
Illustration from ‘Wonderstruck,’ by Brian Selznick

In 1987, Chicago’s renowned Joffrey Ballet premiered their version of The Nutcracker at the University of Iowa’s Hancher Auditorium. Now, nearly 30 years later, they’ve returned to do the same again — but this new staging makes some bolder changes to the story, as well.

Enter Brian Selznick. The Caldecott Medal-winner (for 2007’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret) was brought in by the ballet to craft this new imagining. Selznick, a writer and illustrator, published his first book (The Houdini Box) in 1991, and has gone on to become a giant in the world of children’s literature. He brings a delightful grasp of whimsy and wonder to this production.

The Joffrey Ballet’s new Nutcracker premieres on Dec. 1 at the Hancher and runs through Dec. 4. Tickets are $20–75. There is also a gala reception on Dec. 3. In addition to Selznick, the all-star design team assembled by choreographer Christopher Wheeldon includes puppeteer Basil Twist, who was in town this September, and scenic designer Julian Crouch (Shockhead Peter, Hedwig and the Angry Inch). Selznick answered questions for us via email recently while in London.

Your work as an illustrator is as well-known as your work as an author, and your most popular works feature both of your skills. How has it been to work on this story-focused project, with the visuals being handled in such a significantly different way?

I was happily surprised to discover how similar creating an illustrated book and creating a ballet turned out to be. Before I draw pictures for my books, I write outlines of the narrative and then describe what I want each drawing to be. I don’t start drawing until these descriptions are finished. Since a ballet is mainly a visual experience for the audience (plus music of course), I was able to talk to Chris [Wheeldon] about what was important to him in the story and then create an outline that was based purely on images, movement and characters. As an example of what I’m talking about, this is my opening for the outline of the ballet, from which Chris created the choreography.

After I describe the location, which is a construction site destined to become the Chicago World’s Fair, in the winter, 1892, I wrote: “Rich families in fancy winter clothes flood the stage carrying gifts. Their servants follow carrying even more wrapped boxes. They are on their way to a fancy party. It is very cold out. The rich children stop and look at the sign for the fair. They point. Their parents hurry the children along. In their wake, we see a poor girl with a bag hanging from her shoulder. This is MARIE. She is lonely and full of dreams.”

It’s up to Chris to figure out how to transform that into movement, and it’s up to the designer Julian Crouch to figure out what that construction zone looks like and what everyone is wearing. It was a thrill to work with these brilliant artists, to see how they interpret the story I helped come up with.

Have you done collaborative work of this sort before? What’s your favorite aspect of cross-disciplinary collaboration?

This is my first experience collaborating on this type of work. Of course, all my work is collaborative on some level, even my books, which are created with a lot of help from my editor Tracy Mack at Scholastic, but usually I come up with the stories and do all the design work myself. I’ve written the screenplay for a movie adaptation of my book Wonderstruck, currently being directed by Todd Haynes, and, while Todd was involved in some final polishing of the screenplay, it’s still my story from start to finish. The real collaboration is between Todd and all the amazing artists helping to realize the film, like the production designer, costume designer and editor. I felt lucky just to watch them work.

The Nutcracker is the first time I’ve worked with someone to actually create a new story and it turned out to be very challenging and great fun. I was nervous, never having written a ballet before, but I knew I was in the best hands with Chris, and that he knew the music and the original story inside out. He was able to guide me as we figured out where our new version needed to track the traditional narrative and where we could comfortably set out in new directions.

You grew up quite close to where I did — East Brunswick, NJ (I’m from Cranford, in Union County). It’s an area rife with storytellers and inventors. How do you feel your particular upbringing prepared you for a career in writing for children? What are some of your favorite central Jersey childhood memories?

I was lucky to grow up in a school system with wonderful art classes from kindergarten through high school. I was nurtured by my art teachers and did theater as well, which became a huge influence on the work I’ve done since. I also found a wonderful private art teacher to study with after school named Eileen Sutton. She was a big influence on me as well.

Why the Chicago World’s Fair? Was that your pitch to the ballet, or a concept they brought to you?

When Chris approached me about working on the ballet, he said he had two ideas to start with: setting the story in the Chicago World’s Fair as a way of celebrating the home of the Joffrey Ballet, and telling a version of the story about a poor family, not a rich one as is usually done. He wanted to retain magical elements of The Nutcracker that everyone knows and loves, but was open to finding a new narrative that worked with the beloved score. I was eager to dive in.

I watched about five hundred different versions of The Nutcracker online, read the original ETA Hoffmann book, saw interviews with Chris on YouTube and went to see his Broadway show An American In Paris to understand how he brilliantly tells a story. We polished the narrative for about a year before rehearsals actually began on the ballet.

What is your history with ballet as an art form? Were you a fan before beginning this project?

About ten years ago, I played the arms of the title character in a puppet version of the ballet Petrushka, directed and choreographed by Basil Twist, who is now collaborating on The Nutcracker. We used Bunraku-style puppets with three puppeteers on each puppet, one on the head and back, one on the legs and one on the arms.

Basil’s idea was that humans play puppets in Petrushka by acting stiff and jerky, but if you have puppets actually play them they can do that no human can do, like fly and move in slow motion. We also played other more abstract elements for the show, like giant hands, cardboard Russian landscapes and giant swaying fabrics. It was a real extravaganza, with a score played live by twin Russian pianists on back to back grand pianos.

Are there plans in the works for a picture book to accompany this Joffrey collaboration?

Maurice Sendak was a friend of mine and he designed a gorgeous production of The Nutcracker for the Portland Ballet and then turned it into a stunning book. This idea is really exciting and we’ve certainly discussed ways in which to create a book version of our ballet. I have lots of ideas and it would be fun to collaborate with Julian Crouch on the images, but right now the book remains, like Marie’s visit to the World’s Fair in our story, a dream.

Genevieve Trainor believes in the power of art to change perceptions and change lives. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 210.

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