by Cara Marie Gary
I vividly remember the day Christopher Wheeldon came into the studio to start creating his world premiere of The Nutcracker. It was early August, and with enthusiasm, he said, “let’s crack some nuts!”. We instantly dove into the snow scene… I, however, might have dove a little too far. On that day I was attempting my first entrance as a snow soloist, where Christopher wanted the men to explode onstage with handfuls of snow and a few seconds later have the women burst from the wings and land horizontally in their arms. I was really excited to try my first step in the new production: run, run, run, jump…and that’s when I realized I had dove a little too far, bypassed my partner’s grip and literally found myself with my hands on the ground, my face inches from the floor. There were a few loud gasps and I could tell this definitely wasn’t the exact movement Christopher was hoping for, so without hesitating we gave it another try. This is not a moment I want to dwell on, but I tell this anecdote to portray how Christopher is a choreographer that inspires you to push your limits and go beyond your boundaries. His creativity and unwavering energy constantly drives you to try new things. I remember him once saying in rehearsal, “Let’s not think of it as fast, let’s think of it as exciting!” The process of creating a new Nutcracker has been just that – fast and exciting. It has also been an experience I will treasure forever.
Just as Robert Joffrey’s 1987 version of The Nutcracker debuted at the Hancher Auditorium in Iowa City, Iowa, our first preview performances of the Christopher Wheeldon’s production took place at the Hancher, thanks to its longstanding partnership with Joffrey. I found this experience in Iowa City before the ballet’s world premiere in Chicago to be a tribute to the previous generation’s iconic rendition and also a memorable way to introduce the new generation’s reinterpretation.
What makes this Nutcracker unique from other traditional versions is that there is a new setting and storyline unique to our city and its history. The story takes place in Chicago on the Christmas Eve of 1892, before the grand opening of the World’s Columbian Exposition. Now focusing on an immigrant worker’s family instead of a wealthy Victorian family, the audience follows the story of Marie, her younger brother, and their widowed mother (who is revealed to be the sculptress for the fair).
I’m honored to be a member of the original cast of Christopher Wheeldon’s Nutcracker. Not only did I get to work with one of the best choreographers of this generation and 2015 Tony Award® Winner for Best Choreography for “An American in Paris”, but getting to meet and work closely with his creative team has been incredible! I’m forever grateful for the encouragement, corrections, and insight I gained from working with Christopher’s assistant, Jackie Barrett. She has a keen eye for details and kept the company on their toes–as she wouldn’t let a single step go unnoticed. The award-winning team also included author and illustrator Brian Selznick, Tony Award-nominated set and costume designer Julian Crouch, Obie and Drama Desk award-winning puppeteer and MacArthur Fellowship recipient Basil Twist, six-time Tony Award-winning lighting designer Natasha Katz, and Tony Award®-winning projection designer Ben Pearcy.
Knowing the experience and achievements of all of these people was a bit daunting, but working with them and learning from their expertise was a fascinating part of this creative process. Early on, the company worked directly with Basil Twist. We had multiple rehearsals where we’d discuss puppetry ideas that might be incorporated into the production, and he taught us techniques for working with silks to create movements that had life to them. We spent time learning how to maneuver puppet rats and create shadow effects, and in the beginning some of the puppetry was very raw and the techniques seemed a bit unclear. As dancers it was somewhat challenging to grasp how the puppetry would turn out, but Basil blew our minds with the final products; they were so realistic and created a powerful and dramatic effect!
During the creative process, it seemed that Christopher never slowed down or seemed tired. As a choreographer in high demand traveling back and forth to Chicago, he’d often step off an airplane, jump in a taxi, and walk straight into Joffrey Tower, ready to start rehearsals with enthusiasm. True to form, when he fell into the orchestra pit and broke his ankle during our technical rehearsals in Iowa, Christopher went to the hospital, got a cast boot, and came back to finish the rehearsal!
Working with someone like him is also inspiring because of the way he relates to his dancers – even the many children that are included in this production. Without ever raising his voice, his energetic presence was enough to keep the attention of the children, and he wasn’t forced to diminish the quality of his style; instead, he expressed how he wanted the steps to be executed in creative ways that children could comprehend.
With the company dancers, when tensions got high, Christopher told us to have confidence in ourselves and remember that with anything new it takes time to refine the details. He reminded us that it was a process and that we didn’t need to pressure ourselves to execute the steps perfectly on the first try. Although it sometimes felt like chaos, he assured us that everything would come together in the end, and it did!
I really appreciated how Christopher led us to approach our movement with layers and texture. He challenged each person to develop their own characters and come up with an inner dialogue – to find a personal story, believe it, and use it to add nuances to the choreography. I was very fortunate to be cast to learn the role of Marie, and in one of our final rehearsals, Christopher reminded me that Marie has a journey in this ballet. He told me the audience must follow her story and see it completed. As Marie, I not only physically placed myself in the scenes Christopher and his team developed, but I tried to incorporate myself emotionally in those scenes as well.
This was a fun process, because Marie has a younger brother, Franz, and in real life I have a younger brother, Coleman. He’s not so little anymore and doesn’t need my assistance with much, but I would do anything to protect him. Throughout the ballet I get to channel different emotions in this relationship – I’m protective when the teenage boys pick on him, sad when he breaks my Nutcracker, nurturing when I tuck him into bed, frightened when rats drag him away from me, terrified when the Rat Catcher threatens to kill him, and desperate when he’s tied up and held captive.
A deeper element that I was able to quickly relate to was the void in Marie’s family situation, as her mother is a widow taking care of her two children. In the ballet, Marie is surrounded by immigrant families with both parents and her dream is to have a complete family again. Marie’s imagination is piqued when the Impresario arrives on Christmas Eve and she witnesses him interacting with her mother – she finds herself hoping that one day they might end up together and fulfill that longing for wholeness.
Similarly, my father recently became a widower after my mother passed away due to ovarian cancer, and my dad, my brother, and I are learning how to do life in a different way, which is incredibly hard. I have a constant yearning to have my mother back in our lives, and the void she left feels irreplaceable. Although my personal experience is not exactly the same as Marie’s, many of these emotions naturally transfer to the way I portray her story and her feelings along the journey that she takes.
Of course, it wouldn’t be The Nutcracker without the title character! This is an element that has been kept close to many traditional versions – Marie’s Nutcracker doll given to her by the Impresario is transformed into a Prince named Peter, danced by my wonderful partner and friend, Yoshihisa Arai. Yoshi and I joined Joffrey Ballet at the same time in 2012 and this is our first full length ballet together as partners. He has been so encouraging throughout this process and I always have a sense of calmness when we dance together – a great asset when approaching a new character and dancing in a challenging production.
From the first days of my “crash course” in the snow scene to our currently full schedule of performances each night in Chicago’s historic Auditorium Theatre, I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to work with a world renowned choreographer and a powerful creative team on this fascinating world premiere. I’m also thankful for Joffrey Ballet’s artistic staff and my fellow coworkers who have worked diligently during this process, which has taken strong commitment, teamwork, responsibility, and determination from everyone involved. In the end, we know that our art form creates magic onstage for our audience members, and we look forward to sharing the magical experience of Christopher Wheeldon’s Nutcracker with people for many years to come.
Joffrey performs The Nutcracker through December 30th, 2016 at Chicago’s Auditorium Theatre.
Contributor Cara Marie Gary is a native of Belton, South Carolina. She joined The Joffrey Ballet in July 2012. Prior to joining The Joffrey Ballet, Ms. Gary danced with American Ballet Theatre’s ABTII and was an apprentice with Orlando Ballet. Ms. Gary began her formal ballet training at International Ballet Academy in Greer, South Carolina, under Hennadii Bespechnyi and Vlada Kvsselova. Ms. Gary received additional training at summer intensives with American Ballet Theatre, Brianskv Saratoga Ballet Center, Ukrainian Academy of Dance South Carolina Governors School, Ballet Spartanburg, and Chautauqua Institution. Ms. Gary graduated with honors from Belton-Honea Path High School and is currently pursuing a Business Administration degree online through North Greenville University.
In 2010, Ms. Gary was a competitor in the IX USA International Ballet Competition held in Jackson, Mississippi. She was a top twelve finalist in the Youth America Grand Prix National Finals in 2008 and 2009. She also received the overall Grand Prix Award in the 2009 YAGP regional semi-finals. In 2006, she was awarded a Diploma of Laureate at the VI Serge Lifar International Ballet Competition held in Kiev, Ukraine.
Ms. Gary has had the opportunity to tour throughout the United States and Europe. Ms. Gary has performed the title role in classical ballets such as The Nutcracker, La Sylphide, Don Quixote, Paquita, Markitanka pas de six, and Coppelia. Her repertoire with ABT II includes roles in the Flame of Paris pas de deux, Jerome Robbins’ Interplay, Antony Tudor’s Continuo, George Balanchine’s Allegro Brillante and Stars and Stripes pas de deux, Jessica Lang’s Vivace Motifs, Roger Vanfleteren’s Pavlovsk, Jodi Gate’s A Taste of Sweet Velvet, Aszure Barton’s Barbara, and Edward Liang’s Ballo Per Sei. Ms. Gary has performed roles in new choreography by Robert Hill. Her repertoire with Orlando Ballet also consists of Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker, and Swan Lake.