Chicago presents myriad ‘Nutcrackers’

By Alex Stedman

In 1816, German author E.T.A. Hoffmann wrote “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King,” a mystical tale about a young girl and her toy nutcracker’s endeavor to defeat a malevolent seven-headed rodent ruler.

It would later inspire the libretto for Tchaikovsky’s cherished “The Nutcracker” suite, first performed in 1892 and now a Christmas staple. Chicago’s array of ballet and music venues have produced multiple renditions of the Christmas classic with new twists for audiences young and old.

The House Theatre of Chicago

In its fourth run of the festive favorite, The House boasts a family-friendly production. However, it didn’t necessarily start out that way, according to co-author Jake Minton. He said he did a “complete overhaul” of the original version when he and Phillip Kapperich first wrote the script in 2007.

In their version, Fritz, the main character’s older brother, dies during the Christmas season. The story is about the family’s struggle to cope.

“A lot of us in The House have experienced the loss of loved ones around Christmas time,” Minton said. “We wanted to tell a story about a Christmas that’s hard to get through.”

However, Minton said he thought the first script was too dark, scary and psychologically traumatic for children. They put the script away and returned to it in 2010, keeping the brother’s death but allowing for some funnier, light-hearted moments.

Now, The House Theatre’s production of “The Nutcracker” is one that both children and adults can comfortably enjoy, Minton said. It runs Nov. 18–Dec. 30 at the Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division St., and tickets start at $25.

Moscow Ballet

The legendary Moscow Ballet’s rendition of “The Great Russian Nutcracker” will celebrate its 20th anniversary during the holiday season in cities across America and will be in the Chicago area for a single performance.

The production’s Russian dancers have worked their entire lives to be able to perform in the Moscow Ballet, said Sally Michael Keyes, director of public relations at the Moscow Ballet.

“It’s very competitive, and they really have to want to do it,” she said. “The minimum training is 10 years, six days a week, and they love it. This is their life.”

The costumes of pure silk, satin, velvet and sequins are made in Russia, and Keyes said nothing is spared in the construction of the attire. The show itself focuses on aspects of Russian society. The main character, Clara, who is renamed Masha for this adaptation, is swept away to the Land of Peace and Harmony rather than the Land of Sweets, which represents the freeing of Russia’s arts scene, Keyes said.

“The Great Russian Nutcracker” will play Dec. 2 at the Akoo Theatre in Rosemont, Ill. Tickets for the performance range from $30–$100.

Joffrey Ballet

In its 25th year, the Joffrey Ballet’s production of “Nutcracker” has become a Chicago holiday tradition, according to Ashley Wheater, artistic director of the company. However, the production has gone through some changes over the years. Wheater danced in the original Joffrey production in the ’80s and has seen huge improvement in its lighting and scenic elements, especially scenes involving snow, he said.

Wheater said the late Robert Joffrey, the original choreographer of the ballet’s production, veered away from the European original and made it an American ballet. He said that “Nutcracker” has become a tradition for many families and visitors, who return because of its timeless appeal.

“If you haven’t seen ‘Nutcracker,’ you can be swept away by so many different things, whether it’s the beautiful dancing, the incredible music or that it’s a big spectacle,” Wheater said.

The production runs Dec. 7–27 at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress Parkway. Tickets range from $33–$123.

Ruth Page Civic Ballet

The Ruth Page Civic Ballet, a youth ballet company, has been running its production of “The Nutcracker” for about 13 years, according to Laura Wade, children’s director for the company. Wade said the Civic Ballet is composed primarily of children performers. Though there are a few adult professional dancers in the production, Wade said most participants are under 14 years old.

Wade said teaching the children, who are all dedicated to the craft, can be a challenge because of the dark nature of the ballet and its traditional choreography.

“These kids really have to focus,” she said. “Dance is not a fast thing [to learn]. You have to work at it for a long time to get any good at it. Hopefully, it’s fun as you go along the way.”

The production runs Dec. 1 and 2 at Northeastern Illinois University, 5500 N. Louis Ave., Dec. 8 and 9 at Elgin Community College in Elgin, Ill., and Dec. 15 and 16 at College of Lake Country in Grayslake, Ill. Tickets cost $25.