The Joffrey’s ‘Nutcracker’ takes us beyond twirling tutus

The Joffrey Ballet’s “The Nutcracker” really isn’t your average “Nutcracker.” Which makes sense, considering that the Joffrey isn’t anywhere close to your average dance company. Last year’s reimagining of the Tchaikovsky masterpiece by Tony Award-winning choreographer Christopher Wheeldon brought audiences into the stunning world of Chicago’s 1893 World’s Fair. People went nuts for it; performances from an internationally recognized troupe and a creative team with a ridiculous number of Tony, Obie and Drama Desk awards between them will do that. Now in its second year, the “new” “Nutcracker” is every bit as Christmassy and wonderful as you’d want, and with new takes on classic storylines that you’ll thrill for.

My two daughters, ages eight and six, are no strangers to the Joffrey nor to this particular show. Fans since 2013 and 2015, respectively, they eagerly awaited their favorite songs (the entirety of the Land of Sweets, which replaces gossamer fairies with World’s Fair acts in an exceptionally cool manner), and the adored Sugar Plum Fairy who, in this retelling, is the Queen of the Fair. (Danced gorgeously by April Daly, the Queen of the Fair also has a pretty great side role in this version — keep an eye out for it.) But the most magical change of all is the spotlight on the youngest dancers in the production. While we absolutely loved the miniature Nutcrackers chasing miniature walnuts (no, really, it was hands-down the sweetest part of a show packed with sugar), the expanded dance opportunities for young male performers was terrific to see. So when Nora, my eight year old, had a chance to speak with Bennett Parker (10) and Dylan Sengpiel (13) — the two boys who share the role of Franz, Marie’s little brother — she practically spun and leapt at the chance. 

First off, Nora’s take on the show. 

“This one takes place at the World’s Fair. The people weren’t all fairies, either! Some of the characters were people at the Fair, like workers and dancers and people like that. Marie’s mother had a great part this time! The family was poor and they lived in a shack, and in other shows Marie lived in a fancy house. Some of the scenery becomes enchanted and gets really big, and the magician, not the Godfather this time, is in charge of that. I feel like Mother Ginger’s house was much bigger this time — it looked really nice, really colorful. The costumes were all really shiny, the Queen of the Fair’s specifically.”

And now for her questions. 

Nora: How many years have you performed?

Bennett: I’ve performed with MOMENTA, which is the company at the Academy of Movement and Music for three years. This is my first performance with the Joffrey.

Dylan: I have been performing in The Joffrey Ballet’s “The Nutcracker” for four years, but this is my second year performing Christopher Wheeldon’s Nutcracker.

Nora: What’s your favorite part of this show?

Dylan: My favorite part of the show is the prologue, I love the adrenaline I get from squeezing through the fence and then having fun with my fellow dancers. It really sets the tone for how the rest of the show will follow.

Bennett: My favorite part of the show is the party scene because of the happy mood.

Nora: The rats kidnapped you this time. Were you actually holding your breath when you were being tied up by the rats? That was surprising. 

Bennett: No, I was not holding my breath, but acting scared. It’s not every day you see life-size mice!

Dylan: I was not holding my breath for the rats even though it is a scary scene with the rat costumes and the fog.

Nora: Franz has a really big part now and where did that story come from? 

Bennett: The new story came from Brian Selznick, who has written many children’s books, and is one of my favorite authors. He collaborated with The Joffrey Ballet’s artistic staff and “The Nutcracker” creative team. 

Dylan: Last year when Christopher Wheeldon was creating “The Nutcracker,” we had to be at the studio rehearsing from August to December. Christopher was creating the part around us — we tried to create a character that would fit a boy my age.

Nora: How do you not get tired when you dance so much? 

Dylan: I do get very tired when I dance a lot. It may not seem like that because my smile mostly hides it, but when I get off stage I’m at a loss of breath.

Bennett: Well, sometimes I am tired, but if i’m not, the excitement keeps me going.

If you go:

The Nutcracker runs through Dec. 30, 2017

Auditorium Theatre

50 E. Congress Pkwy, Chicago

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