The University of Iowa
The University of Iowa News Services Home News Releases UI in the News Subscribe to UI News Contact Us

University of Iowa News Release

Nov. 19, 2004

Joffrey 'Nutcracker' Returns Home To UI Hancher Auditorium

The Joffrey Ballet's distinctly American version of "The Nutcracker" will return to the site of its 1987 premiere, the University of Iowa Hancher Auditorium, for five holiday-season performances -- at 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday, Dec. 9 and 10; at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 11; and at 2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 12.

The performances will feature the Cedar Rapids Symphony, a chorus of students from Washington and Jefferson high schools in Cedar Rapids, and a corps of more than 70 young Iowa dancers, who play a prominent role in the American "Nutcracker" conceived by Robert Joffrey as the final project before his death in 1988.

Following a summer-long developmental residency, "The Nutcracker" premiered on Dec. 10, 1987, billed as "Iowa's Holiday Gift to the Nation." The original corps of Iowa children accompanied the Joffrey Ballet to Washington, D.C., for a high-profile run in the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. This season the young dancers have been rehearsed by Grace Snider, director of the UI Dance Forum in the Dance Department.

The magical production -- made possible by donations from hundreds of Iowa individuals and businesses -- was an immediate hit with both audiences and the critics who converged on Iowa City from around the nation, and it has become an annual mainstay of the Joffrey Ballet repertory, at home in Chicago's Auditorium Theatre and on tour. The production was aired on PBS and later released as a video.

Robert Joffrey's "Nutcracker" was produced in the spirit of the original ballet created by Marius Petipa, which premiered Dec. 18, 1892, at the Maryinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, Russia. However, Joffrey's inspiration also came from his personal collection of Victorian-era toys and his desire to create a "Nutcracker" ballet that expressed the festivity and ambience of a Victorian-era Christmas in America -- a departure from the European setting and traditions in all previous "Nutcracker" ballets.

Years before the premiere, Joffrey began searching antique shops in New York's Greenwich Village to find American Victorian-era toys, cards and holiday memorabilia upon which to design the "Nutcracker" set. Accompanying him was long-time Joffrey photographer Herbert Migdoll.

"I remember him holding up an engraving of a toyshop window," Midgoll says. "It had a tree in the middle and American-Victorian type toys. Bob turned to me and asked, 'What would you think of using this engraving as the basis of the front curtain for The Nutcracker?' I said, 'It's perfect; all it needs is a little nutcracker in the middle.'"

Joffrey never said another word about the design of the front curtain to Migdoll. "When the curtain was raised I was shocked and thrilled to see that exact scene from the engraving we saw in the antique shop, with a nutcracker in the middle," Migdoll says. "It just gave me goose bumps. Bob had given the engraving to designer Oliver Smith who had designed the front curtain exactly as Bob and I had discussed."

Smith's stage design echoes the 3-D fold-out cards that were popular in Victorian-era America.

"Tree Angels," performed by the smallest of the child dancers, is also unique to Joffrey's "Nutcracker." Christmas trees were a relatively new tradition in America in the 1850s. German immigrants brought the "Tannenbaum," or Christmas tree custom to the United States in the early 19th century, but it wasn't until 1856, when President Franklin Pierce decorated the first White House Christmas tree, that the Christmas tree tradition became popular in North America.

Joffrey wanted to incorporate this American Christmas icon into "The Nutcracker," and on another visit to a Greenwich Village antique shop, he found a 1903 greeting card titled "Christmas Tree Angel." The card, which depicted a Christmas tree with a child's face and wings, became the prototype for the 12 Christmas tree angels in "The Nutcracker."

The distinctive choreography of the Joffrey "Nutcracker" is attributed in part to Joffrey co-founder and artistic director Gerald Arpino, who choreographed the two main sections, "The Waltz of the Snowflakes" and "The Waltz of the Flowers." Arpino's choreography was entirely new and brought a fresh dynamic to "The Nutcracker."

Joffrey choreographed the "Dance of Nougats from Russia" based on the solo he choreographed for his graduation dance concert when he was 16 years old. He expanded the cast from one man to three and brought in one woman, and the costumes were designed after the costume he made for his graduation concert.

Because children are central to the theme of "The Nutcracker," Joffrey sought to fill his creation with the quality of magic. "When Dr. Drosselmeyer, the doll maker and magician, holds out his cape, the smoke shoots out, and then all of the sudden the Nutcracker appears, the children always gasp with excitement," Migdoll explains. "That's the kind of effect on the audience Bob was anxious to have."

The essence of "The Nutcracker" was described by Joffrey in a commentary he wrote just before his death in 1988: "It is through Dr. Drosselmeyer's magic and love that this never-ending dream of Christmas transports Clara and enables each of us to revisit the land of innocence: our childhood."

Nancy Dalva wrote for DanceViewNewYork, "When, at the ballet's end, his girl heroine leaves the land of enchantment, she departs not with her Prince, but with her magician. She leaves with Drosselmeyer! And how she leaves. At the back of the stage, a hot-air balloon lands, and in they step into the pendant gondola. How can you not see Dorothy? The Wizard? Metro-Goldwyn- Mayer!

"Robert Joffrey, immigrant son, Americanized ballet's Christmas rite and left us, waving good-bye and saying, 'I pulled the levers behind the curtain; I was the wizard; Merry Christmas! Farewell!'"

Co-commissioning "The Nutcracker" and hosting its world premiere was the result of a deepening relationship between the UI and the Joffrey Ballet that began in 1974, when a touring initiative of the National Endowment for the Arts enabled Hancher Auditorium to present the company for the first time.

The success of those residencies, which took the Joffrey second company into Iowa communities large and small, prompted Hancher's first commissioning project -- James Kudelka's "The Heart of the Matter," which was premiered in Hancher as part of the 1985 celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Iowa Center for the Arts. That project launched Hancher into an era of artistic entrepreneurship that has brought the auditorium a worldwide reputation as a creative center.

The extensive Joffrey/Iowa partnership -- totaling nearly 80 performances by Joffrey companies in Hancher alone -- is best-known for two large-scale Hancher-commissioned productions that were both artistic successes and important elements of the Joffrey's survival through tough financial times: The second was "Billboards" in 1993, America's first full-length rock ballet, featuring music by Prince and movement by four contemporary choreographers.

During a summer residency at the UI before the "Nutcracker" world premiere, the Joffrey did the bulk of its work on the landmark reconstruction of the Stravinsky/Nijinsky "Le Sacre du Printemps" (The Rite of Spring), including the production's first full run-through, on the Hancher stage.

Sponsors of the Joffrey "Nutcracker" are a group of local contributors known collectively as the Sugar Plum Visionaries, chaired by Mary Keough Lyman, who is a long-time member of the Joffrey executive board. Each of the more than 125 households has contributed at least $250 to support the return of "The Nutcracker," and more than $50,000 has been raised. Each of the Visionaries will receive a special memento of the event -- a limited edition holiday ornament, created by Iowa City artist Sally Lindberg.

Remaining tickets for the Joffrey "Nutcracker" are $45/38; UI student and senior citizen $40.50/34.20; youth $31.50/26.60.

Hancher Auditorium box office business hours are 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. weekdays and 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturdays. From the local calling area, dial 319-335-1160. Long distance is toll-free, 1-800-HANCHER. Fax to 319-353-2284. People with special needs for access, seating and auxiliary services should dial 319-335-1158, which is equipped with TDD for people with hearing impairment who use that technology.

Tickets may be ordered on-line 24 hours a day, seven days a week through Hancher's website:

Orders may be charged to VISA, MasterCard or American Express. UI students may charge their purchases to their university bills, and UI faculty and staff may select the option of payroll deduction. Information and brochures may be requested by e-mail:

For UI arts information and calendar updates, visit To receive UI arts news by e-mail,

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa Arts Center Relations, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 351, Iowa City, IA 52242-2500.

MEDIA CONTACT: Winston Barclay, 319-384-0073,

PHOTOS are available at