Monday, December 4, 2023

The Nutcracker

Anabella de la Nuez and Jose Pablo Castro Cuevas in "The Nutcracker" (Photo by Katie Miller)
      Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky never visited Chicago. The Russian composer was invited here, to attend the opening of the World's Columbian Exposition in May of 1893. But he begged off, observing that he had just been in America in 1891, when he went to New York, Washington D.C., Philadelphia and Baltimore. That would have to do, as he would die that November.
Tchaikovsky's contribution
     Tchaikovsky did, however, heed Bertha Palmer's request of famous people to provide something that could be auctioned off to raise money to build the Children's Pavilion (as did Rudyard Kipling, Henry James and a range of 19th century notables). Tchaikovsky penned seven bars of “Andante cantabile,” then a new composition.
     So it is perhaps apt that his last masterpiece, "The Nutcracker," be sent to the fair in his stead in the Joffrey Ballet's production of the Christmas favorite. This fair-themed version debuted in 2016, and with the city plagued with a variety of problems and dysfunction, barely able to raise some tents to shelter immigrants, it's comforting to recall a time when Chicago built a White City in Hyde Park and welcomed the world to an enormous party.
     The  production opened Saturday night at the Civic Opera House. While being a dance critic ain't beanbag, and I would never presume to bring skill or experience to the endeavor, I thought it might be worthwhile, as a vacation diversion, to marshall a few words about it here. 
     But really, what's there to say about the Joffrey favorite? The audience, being packed with finely-dressed, super-excited families, was itself a holiday entertainment. It was fun just watching the proud attendees take pictures of each other in front of the big tree of gift packages set up in the lobby. The fact that someone also put on a dance afterward was an added bonus. 
     The Joffrey production transports the ballet from an upper class German household to a hardscrabble Chicago family on the eve of the World's Fair, I assume to mirror society's general rejection of all things well-to-do. There is a magic moment early on when the children, given an assemblage of unpromising objects — a bike wheel, a glass sphere, and such — set them on a table, and they become a silhouette of the fair, with its towers and Ferris Wheel.
     The dancers were flawless, as far as I could tell, the costumes lavish. Of course I've seen "The Nutcracker" a number of times, and perhaps familiarity took a bit of the oomph away. There's a moment when the family's paltry, Charlie Brown Christmas tree expands into a wondrous, stage filling marvel I looked forward to and, sorry, but that moment just didn't pop Saturday night the way I remember it doing in productions past. Nor was the battle against the mice as frightening as I would have liked.
     But that's the reaction of someone more skilled at criticism than praise, particularly when it comes to ballet, which I don't attend much. Overall the production is two hours of Christmas magic, lovely to behold, particularly one moment when the stage is filled with falling snow and dancing sugar plum fairies, or whatever they were. Simply marvelous, and a welcome distraction from everything
 going on in the world.  If you've got your tickets — it runs through Dec. 27 — you're in for a treat.
Zackery Manske, Yumi Kanazawa and Hyuma Kiyosawa (Photo by Katie Miller).


  1. I saw this on Saturday too. It’s an annual event for me & I love this version. It’s so a creative retelling of the story & it’s just magical! Mary PS

  2. Maybe 17 or 18 years ago I was gifted the opportunity to attend the nutcracker by a young woman of whom I had recently made acquaintance. We sat in a little room off to the side at balcony level. I'd never been to the ballet it was quite the introduction.

    I mentioned that my children would love this. I don't think I ever heard from her again.

    I was right my children loved it . Even from half way up the balcony. Those little rooms are pricey.

  3. I remember my kindergarten teacher turning us on to this Christmas classic. I didn’t quite understand it at the time, but I found it mesmerizing. Always a treat to hear it every year.

  4. It's been a few years, probably pre-Pandemic, since we went to see the new Nutcracker. I think it was this production's 2nd year. Anyway, I was amazed at how well the music and sequence of events fit into the Chicago World's Fair mold. I have never forgiven sourpuss Harold Washington for putting the kibosh on a 1993 World's Fair. It would have been another wonder.


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