Visions: A Nutcracker Experience Credit: Kayla McGrath

Every winter it comes: the tunes, the tinsel, the toys—and the tale of Clara, a young girl traveling to a kingdom of sweets with a magical Nutcracker prince. Chicago’s oldest production of The Nutcracker, choreographed by Chicago ballet icon Ruth Page in 1965, has been a homegrown holiday tradition for decades. Initially choreographed for the 90-foot proscenium of the Arie Crown Theater at McCormick Place, Page’s Nutcracker, produced by the Chicago Tribune Charities, played to over 3 million people over 32 years, annually bringing together 70 dancers, 50 musicians, and guest luminaries from companies including the Royal Danish Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, National Ballet of Canada, English National Ballet, and Munich Bayerische Staatsoper to light up the stage in lead roles. 

The proliferation of holiday shows on Chicago stages, including a competing Nutcracker by the Joffrey Ballet, gradually led to audience attrition and a decision by the organizers to cease the production at the Arie Crown in 1997, yet Page’s choreography has been preserved to the present day through a stalwart lineage of dancers who have passed their roles to the next generations. Chief among these are Dolores Lipinski Long and Larry Long, soloists in the original production, who cofounded the Ruth Page School of Dance and revived the production for the school’s preprofessional training company, the Civic Ballet. 

The production has been adapted over the years for changes in venue and scale, notably in 2002, when a partnership with the theater department at UIC resulted in the incorporation of narration in Act I of the ballet, written by William F. Raffeld, UIC associate professor of theater, who played the role of the grandfather for 26 years at Arie Crown and continued his part with the Civic Ballet. This year, the challenge of the pandemic has pushed Page’s Nutcracker to its most unusual revision yet: a truncated, immersive, socially distanced performance that takes place throughout the entire Ruth Page Center for the Arts, proof positive that this venerable Nutcracker is still alive and kicking after 55 years. 

“We knew in July that we wouldn’t be able to stage a traditional Nutcracker,” says RPCA resource coordinator Katie Matteson Campana, who originated the idea for the new production, which contains additional choreography by Dolores Long and Birute Barodicaite and scenic design by Amanda Bradley. “The Ruth Page Center for the Arts has five floors of usable space: a theater, four studios, a conference room. The idea came to us to make it a walking, talking, site-specific Nutcracker. We wanted to make it magical and different but still that Nutcracker that our families and school are so familiar with.” 

With distancing regulations in mind, Matteson Campana began to explore how the building’s layout charted a logical pathway for a pared-down story to unfold. The elegant lobby of the building could be decorated for the ballet’s party scene. The studios could be individual stages for beloved scenes such as Snow. The library on the second floor, transformed into a workshop, inspired the character development of Drosselmeyer, Clara’s mysterious uncle, who builds dolls and brings her the magical Nutcracker. And the Ruth Page stage could be reserved as the domain for the Sugar Plum Fairy. 

“I was raised in the midwest, doing Nutcracker from the time I was knee-high to a grasshopper,” she says. “I have done every role there is, including [performing] twice with the Civic Ballet. But I have also danced in modern companies and done site-specific work since 2006. This Nutcracker felt like a marriage of those things. I love story ballets—they are a gateway for so many people to get into dance—but I love the idea of getting to flip it on its head. Opening the production out of the theater makes it accessible to dance lovers who are not necessarily classical ballet lovers.”

Watching the production evolve in this context, “I felt like a little kid navigating through Clara’s dream,” says Ruth Page School of Dance director Victor Alexander, who plays the role of Drosselmeyer this year. “In a regular audience you’d be so far away, you wouldn’t see the cannon by you, the mice by you. Now you’re inside the world! You become part of that moment.”

Alexander danced his first Nutcracker with the Civic Ballet in 2002 as a contemporary dancer and a new immigrant from Cuba, where the ballet had not yet become a holiday staple. “I’m not U.S.-born,” he says. “It’s incredible how everybody [here] is waiting for this time of year to see The Nutcracker, an event that brings joy to families, from little ones to oldest ones. In my dance career, I never knew that I would be dancing a Nutcracker. I never thought I would be directing a Nutcracker!” 

When the stay-at-home advisory went into place on November 16, thwarting the plan for 33 socially-distanced performances to small audiences over three weekends, they opted to create a video for online streaming instead. “I had a conversation with the dancers,” says Alexander. “This is a chance to bring something positive to the world. At this moment we are responsible for bringing Christmas to people’s houses. Nobody else is doing Nutcracker in the city. This is the moment to bring joy and remind Chicago that our Nutcracker has been here since 1965, and we’re still doing it.” 

“Next year is the school’s 50th anniversary,” says Matteson Campana. “Ruth Page was really innovative and did all kinds of crazy stuff. We have the opportunity to do that now too, to push forward with amazing Chicago roots. We can grow and develop and stay fresh and get even fresher.”

“We still exist, and we’re doing our best to keep the doors open and welcoming everybody,” says Alexander. “We can keep that tradition, not just what it was, but what it is and what it will be. We want to keep moving forward.”  v

With thanks to Laura Wade, dancer and soloist with the Ruth Page Nutcracker at Arie Crown for 18 years, longtime children’s director at the Civic Ballet, and ballet teacher to many.