Scottish-born Ashley Wheater has been the Joffrey’s artistic director since 2007, but his career has spanned the globe from London to Australia to San Francisco and now Chicago.
What was your first experience with the Nutcracker?
ASHLEY WHEATER: The first time I was ever in the Nutcracker I was 6 years old. I went to the Royal Ballet School. At that time we had Rudolf Nureyev’s Nutcracker, which was very dark, very sophisticated, and definitely a full-blown classical ballet.
What are some noteworthy changes in the Joffrey Nutcracker over the past 25 years?
AW: I think something that Gerald Arpino added when the company moved to Chicago [in 1995], before we had an academy, was open auditions. One thing that came out of that was having the role of the child in the wheelchair [in the party scene], and that it was a real child with disabilities. It was a really beautiful thing for Gerry to say, “Why should someone be excluded from something if they really want to be a part of it?”
What do you think about creating a new production away from the current Victorian American setting?
AW: I’ve seen ideas where people have taken the Nutcracker and set it in an orphanage. That’s a pretty interesting idea. The thing about the Nutcracker is that we all want to believe in magic. We all want to have that ability to dream. What the Nutcracker really says is that it will take you on a dream, but hopefully it will also ignite a dream within an individual.
How do you think the company keeps it fresh every year?
AW: The one thing that has been recognized across the board is that the production is so well integrated with the children. It isn’t a question of, “Well, these are the kids, and these are the adults.” That was something that Joffrey worked really hard at. The company takes on the responsibility of being the parents. I admire them for that.