at the Arie Crown Theatre

December 7-9, 12-16, 18-23, 26-30

In times as uncertain and threatening as ours, we must be doubly grateful for that most comforting standby, The Nutcracker. Just about wherever one looks in the United States–on major stages, in gymnasiums and community centers–American audiences are flocking to see virtue triumphant: a valiant young girl and a nutcracker rout an army of wicked mice on Christmas Eve and release a handsome prince from the spell that had imprisoned him. The two are rewarded with a magic journey to an enchanting Land of Sweets, where delectable ballet holds sway, to the accompaniment of Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky’s equally delectable music.

This all-American ballet was created 98 years ago in Saint Petersburg for the pleasure of the czar and his aristocratic cronies, and it was based on “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King,” a story by E.T.A. Hoffmann, a popular 19th-century German writer noted for his grotesque gothic fairy tales.

The first performances were not an unmitigated success. The czar didn’t care for the first act, which was devoted to a bourgeois family party. Presumably only the nobility were worthy of being presented attractively onstage to this august audience. One well-known contemporary writer dismissed the entire ballet contemptuously: “The decor of scene 1 is both disgusting and profoundly shocking . . . we were obliged to contemplate during a whole hour the salon of some rich parvenu banker in the Friedrichstrasse style. It was stupid, coarse, heavy and dark . . . I was indignant! . . . The second act is still worse . . . the music reminds one of an open-air military band . . . Tchaikovsky has never written anything more banal than some of these numbers.” That writer made amends years later, admitting he was only 22 years old when he issued his Olympian judgment.

Audiences who attended later performances adored the music and were fascinated by the celesta, a newly invented musical instrument that Tchaikovsky was the first to use, in the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. They doted on the balletic patterns that choreographers Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov created for the Snowflakes and the Waltz of the Flowers. And like audiences today, they were delighted by the homey family party–the parents and children sharing domestic pleasures and disputes, the stylized social dances–and the exciting fairy-tale plot.

Although The Nutcracker was popular in Russia for many years, the complete ballet didn’t arrive in the United States until 1940, when the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo presented it. It was the Land of Sweets act, which contained the most popular music, that was most frequently seen on tour. In 1954 George Balanchine’s phenomenally successful revival for the New York City Ballet stimulated ballet schools and troupes all over the country to emulate the master and make The Nutcracker synonymous with holiday cheer.

I know of at least ten Nutcracker presentations in the Chicago area–and at least two Nutcrackers on Ice. Ruth Page’s version, on view at Arie Crown Theatre, is the best known. Now in its 24th season and staged by Larry Long, the production looks especially good this season. Some of Chicago’s fine ballet schools have supplied this Nutcracker with its gifted and attractive youngsters, from the adorable wee tots to those of about nine or ten, whom Ruth Low Gillies has meticulously trained for the family scene and as toy soldiers. Aimee Garcia as Clara and James-Paul Tenuta as the Nutcracker are a charming, very professional heroic duo.

As usual, Page and Long have invited guest artists from a number of troupes to dance the various classic and character variations. Since this Nutcracker is performed almost daily, there are alternate casts of principals. On opening night, Janet Shibata and Michael Bjerknes were the handsome, elegant Snow Queen and King, whose demanding duet concludes the first act. Yoko Ichino as the Sugar Plum Fairy and David Nixon as her Prince offered a glittering and technically strong Grand Pas de Deux.

Gordon Peirce Schmidt led the high-spirited Russian dance, Manard Stewart was the dashing Spanish dancer, and Jeff F. Herbig danced Tea–all three from Ballet Chicago. Melinda Baker, of Lancaster Ballet, was the leading Marzipan Shepherdess, and Laura Wade and Kevin Ware were the sensuous pair in Coffee. John Capozzoli repeated his comic Madame Bonboniere, and Sharon Muszynski was a daring Acrobat. Kimberly Smiley of Tulsa Ballet Theatre led the Waltz of the Flowers. The pickup corps, from various companies and schools, had a fine, unified look.

By now I’ve seen Page’s Nutcracker many times, but familiarity does not breed boredom. One doesn’t have to be the parent of a child dancing to enjoy this ballet. Sam Leve’s sets still do yeoman service, as do Rolf Gerard’s costumes, although it would be nice to see some new ones some year. As for the music, the capable orchestra, conducted by Joseph Frantik, unfortunately sounded like caterwauling cats because of poor amplification.