Mikael Mulugeta, Office of Strategic Communication, 319-384-0052
42 years of collaboration
42 years of collaboration
42 years of collaboration
Hancher Auditorium’s longstanding partnership with the Joffrey Ballet continues to grow, as the Joffrey debuts its new rendition of The Nutcracker this weekend on the Hancher stage.
Almost 30 years ago, Hancher first commissioned The Nutcracker from the Joffrey, a Chicago-based dance company and one of the premier companies in the world. This year, to help celebrate its new building, which opened in September, Hancher commissioned a reworking of the beloved holiday story.
Choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, winner of the 2015 Tony Award for Best Choreography for the musical play An American in Paris, has reimagined The Nutcracker taking place in Chicago during the 1892-93 World’s Fair. The ballet will be presented in five performances at Hancher, from Dec. 1 to Dec.4, before its world premiere in Chicago on Dec. 10.
For more than 40 years, Hancher has been the cultural hub of the University of Iowa campus—presenting world-class dance, music, and theater. Along the way, Hancher has extended its reach far beyond the university, engaging thousands of Iowans each year, on campus, throughout the community, and across the state. Learn more…
The Joffrey Ballet
The longstanding relationship between the University of Iowa’s Hancher Auditorium and the Joffrey Ballet is a story akin to a fairytale. Revisit the partnership’s history and more about the new Nutcracker in this Iowa Now story.
The storied partnership between Hancher and the Joffrey dates back to 1974, when the Joffrey first performed on the Hancher stage. The dance company quickly found a devoted fan base in Iowa and, by 1976, members of the UI and Iowa City community had founded Friends of the Joffrey, an organization that provides financial support to host the Joffrey at Hancher. In 1986, the Joffrey performed James Kudelka’s Heart of the Matter for Hancher’s first-ever commissioned project. As a gift to the people of Iowa, Hancher sent the Joffrey river-to-river in the summer of 2007, during which the Joffrey performed free outdoor performances in Council Bluffs, Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, and Muscatine.
Chuck Swanson, executive director of Hancher, and Ashley Wheater, artistic director of the Joffrey Ballet, have watched the relationship between the two organizations grow through the decades.
When Hancher first commissioned The Nutcracker from the Joffrey in 1987, Wheater danced for the Joffrey and performed principle roles in The Nutcracker, and Swanson was Hancher’s business manager. Both now lead their respective organizations, Swanson having become executive director of Hancher in 2002 and Wheater Joffrey’s artistic director in 2007.
Swanson and Wheater sat down with Iowa Now to talk about the new Nutcracker and the history between Hancher and the Joffrey Ballet.
When Hancher commissioned The Nutcracker from the Joffrey Ballet in 1987, you were both in very different roles. What can you tell me about that first performance?
Ashley Wheater: I think it was a really special time between Joffrey and Hancher, and the UI. We had been here that summer for a long time putting The Nutcracker together, so everyone in the company got to know Iowa City really well and got to know the people here. The anticipation of that opening night was fantastic.
Chuck Swanson: I’ll never forget the applause that night as the curtain went up. It was Dec. 10 of 1987, and the feeling in the audience, people really felt like they had a part in birthing this.
AW: For sure.
CS: Because people had heard of all the hype surrounding it, there was a lot of pressure to deliver, but as you said, it was a special time.
AW: It was, and it was an exciting time for me as well. I was doing the two principle roles, the Father, which was the Snow King, and also the Cavalier.
CS: And Ashley, this was on the heels of the very first commission that Hancher had ever done for Heart of the Matter in February 1986. On opening night of that performance, we had a champagne reception with the audience and dancers to celebrate the first commission. And now, Hancher has done over 100 commissions, but that, to us, was a very unique feeling.
AW: And Heart of the Matter was really the beginning. The critic for The New York Times at the time was in Iowa and I remember her writing that Hancher’s commission of the Joffrey with James Kudelka’s Heart of the Matter was one of the most important works of that year.
How has the relationship between Hancher and the Joffrey developed through the years?
CS: In 1976, the dancers’ costumes were delayed by a snowstorm in Ohio, and the dancers performed at Hancher anyways, in just their dance leotards. This endeared them to the audience and community, and that year the Iowa Friends of the Joffrey was started. It was a special fundraising effort to support the Joffrey coming to the UI.
And in ’82, ’83, and I think ’85, there were three-week summer residencies during which the Joffrey worked with the Department of Dance. This was at a time when not many dance companies around the country were doing extended dance residencies on college campuses. And that was when I think the Iowa City community really started to embrace dance. Hancher became a real dance house, but I think a lot of that happened because of this close relationship with the Joffrey.
Then in ’93, Billboards happened. The UI had raised money for a production of Cinderella, but it didn’t happen because the Joffrey couldn’t get the rights. But the Joffrey had performed in Los Angeles, and Prince had been to a performance and loved the Joffrey. Prince reached out and said, “If there is ever a time where you want to use my music to create a ballet, you wouldn’t have to pay any money for the rights to the music.” So, Billboards debuted on the Hancher stage in Iowa City in January of 1993. Then it hit the world and toured in Japan, Australia, and Europe. But it started here.
Then there was the 2007 river-to-river.
AW: I think that shows the staying power. After river-to-river, that was in the same year I became the director, and then it was shortly after that the flood happened. We knew what it meant to lose a theater, especially one with so much history and collaboration, so we did a benefit performance in Des Moines for Hancher in 2009.
CS: And that’s rare, Ashley. That doesn’t happen. And to do a benefit in a community that is 110 miles away, and have that sort of success with it, we had a great audience.
We brought the UI Symphony to play, and William LaRue Jones, the conductor, had a very short period of time to prepare the music, but it became a benefit for both Hancher and the School of Music. This was really a benefit for the arts on our campus. And I’ve seen the Joffrey dance many times, but they danced their hearts out that night. They were dancing for the University of Iowa.
AW: I think that anyone who has been in the Joffrey, who has experienced Hancher Auditorium and Iowa City, never forgets it. And there is a real love affair there, and having this incredible theater has given this relationship even more room to grow.
CS: I think the relationship is based on past successes, but also trust. Trust that both are going to deliver—and that’s critical to this working partnership.
What can we expect from this year’s performance of The Nutcracker? In what ways is this different than the ’87 performance?
AW: Well, I would say that we’re nearly 30 years apart from the previous one. In that time, the dance world, technology, theater design, and expectations from audiences have all changed drastically. So, I think what you will get is an awe-inspiring, huge, Broadway-caliber production of The Nutcracker.
CS: Very true. And in some ways, it doesn’t change. The Nutcracker in ’87 changed lives, and for a lot of people it’s their introduction to ballet. Being in that lobby and watching all of these little kids arrive, and the kids on stage as well, and knowing that it’s happening here at Iowa City at the University of Iowa first, it doesn’t get any better.
AW: There are a lot of kids in the show, and they come from all over. Just like 30 years ago, those kids grew up with a great passion for their experience here, and they gave that to their children.
CS: And from what I understand, the technical parts of our new building are being used to their best ability.
AW: We are. We’re utilizing the building to its fullest capacity.
What does it mean to bring the Joffrey back to Hancher for the inaugural season in the new building?
CS: It gives us a lot of pride. It’s great to have a facility like this and to be able to do things like this again. Having this collaboration during Hancher’s inaugural season and Joffrey’s 60th season is pretty neat stuff for all of us.
The university, the Iowa City community, and really the whole state should be so proud of this. There are a lot of people watching.
AW: It’s interesting how things align. We had originally planned The Nutcracker to open in 2015, but Chris Wheeldon had An American in Paris on Broadway, so the timing just wasn’t working out and we decided to push it back a year. And it happened to be the year that Hancher would be re-opening, so the stars aligned perfectly. It’s a very special moment for both of us.
What are some ways that bringing talent like the Joffrey to the UI benefits the university and its students?
CS: We try to make performances like this as affordable as we can for students, but we’re trying to give an opportunity to see a world-class ballet performance right here on campus. It’s never too late to see ballet for the first time, and The Nutcracker can be a great entry point for people to get into ballet. Some call Hancher the largest classroom on campus.
AW: The other thing is if you bring the Cleveland Orchestra here or the Joffrey Ballet here, companies that are at the top of their field, you’re watching excellence. People can recognize excellence and that can be a very transformative experience.
CS: That just gives students, and young people in general, a push to strive for excellence themselves—and not just in the arts but in whatever field they’re interested in. When you see and experience the world’s finest, it pushes people to think big for themselves.
AW: The other thing I would say is, we need the arts. The arts complete our humanity. They are part of our education and part of our expression.
Ashley, what do you think of the new Hancher Auditorium?
AW: I think it’s pretty outstanding. I think you’d be hard pressed to find a better, world-class theater in America. It’s light, it’s airy, and you can see the city so clearly. The proportions of the house to the stage are ideal, and the facilities backstage for the artists are first-rate. Plus, we have a wonderful rehearsal studio. When people are happy in their environment, they’re productive, and I think that Hancher is a very happy place.
When can we expect the next Hancher and Joffrey collaboration?
CS: Hopefully very soon. We have to make sure that the relationship continues. The sky’s the limit, right?
AW: I think for the Joffrey, we have a plan for the future. The Joffrey isn’t about rehashing your stock, classical ballet. It’s always been unafraid to take a risk, meet a challenge, look at our work through a fresh lens. I think it’s wonderful to have a theater on a university campus, and engage young people with what we’re trying to say, because they all inform our vision.
CS: The Joffrey and Hancher are similar in so many ways. Both pursue the highest quality possible. We present the classics but also boundary-expanding work. I think our similar interests will keep us working together for a long time.