Saturday, December 30, 2017

The Nutcracker

One of the greatest experiences of my first trip to St. Petersburg in the 1990s was attending a ballet performance at the Mariinsky Theater, Russia's preeminent hall for the presentation of the performing arts. As I admitted in a post of a few years ago, ballet has never been something that particularly touched my fancy. Yet I couldn't help being impressed attending a performance in the very theater where many of the greatest dancers, choreographers and set designers of the last century and a half plied their art. Even in my ignorant bliss, the names Pavlova, Nijinski, Balanchine, Nureyev, and Baryshinikov  meant a great deal to me and observing young dancers performing the same roles on the same stage as those estimable folks of an earlier era, moved me to tears.

Opera on the other hand is something I have greatly appreciated my entire adult life and the Mariinsky has hosted the world premiers of some of the most important operas written by a who's who of Russian composers, including Glinka, Mussorgsky and Tchaikovsky. But the theater is best known as a mecca for dance, perhaps second in the world only to Moscow's Bolshoi, and it has premiered far more than its share of the most familiar works of classical ballet ever created, including exactly 125 years ago this past December 18, Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker. That performance, the second half of a double bill which also featured the premier of of the same composer's last opera, Iolantha, was anything but a success. Critics chided everything from the abrupt transition from the real to the fantasy world at the close of the first act, to the "corpulence" of the original Sugar Plum Fairy. Who knows, perhaps everyone was just tired after a long evening.

The ballet was essentially moth-balled for the subsequent half century or so before it was revived in Europe in the thirties and in the United States in the forties. A 1944 production in San Francisco proved so popular that the annual tradition of performing the work every winter season took hold.  By the 1960s the ballet became as much a part of Christmas in the USA as Santa and carols played after Labor Day, as one can find at least one Yuletide production of the classic, performed in virtually every sizable American city.

Somehow I managed to be left out of Nutcrackermania for a good chunk of my life. True, I was intimately familiar with the music, as the suite of selected tunes from the ballet, arranged in not quite in the same order that they appear in the original work, is played incessantly at Christmastime. My first experience of the ballet in person, was when I was a chaperone for my son's kindergarten class at a performance put on by a local company for school children. This year I was reminded of that by my son's kindergarten teacher who just happened to show up at a performance of the ballet put on by my daughter's ballet school.

This is the third time my daughter has performed in the ballet. Her first role was as the littlest angel, who shows up at the beginning of the second act. She skipped a couple  of years and returned as a senior angel. This year she had two roles, junior snow and junior flower, dancing to perhaps the most familiar tune of the ballet, The Waltz of the Flowers. This particular dance studio allows children to participate through high school so my little girl has potentially seven more years to participate in their production of the Nutcracker and other programs. It's truly a joy to see her, as well as the other children grow into new and more complicated roles every year. The star of the show is the Sugar Plum Ferry who is on stage for much of the second act. In the role this year was a high school junior, a girl who was a former classmate of my son. I've known her since they played pee wee soccer together ten years ago. Now she is a beautiful young woman who will soon head out into the world to pursue her dreams, wherever they may lead.

A bittersweet moment takes place every year as at the end of each performance, the director of the dance school singles out the seniors who will be moving on. There's not a dry eye in the house as she introduces each dancer, and yes, sadly, most of them are girls, and presents them with a bouquet of roses as she publicly wishes them well for the future.

This year thanks to the dance studio, my daughter and I received a very special perk, tickets to the Joffrey Ballet's performance of the Nutcracker, again put on for school children. Granted it was not the full ballet, just act one. The performers danced to recorded music, not to a live orchestra as the paying crowd gets to see, but it was a magnificent, inspiring couple of hours just the same.

This Joffrey production, the second year it has been presented, is an untraditional take on the story, as it is set in Chicago in 1893, just before the opening of the World's Columbian Exposition. Instead of opening in the living room of an elaborate home, this production opens inside the studio of a woman sculptor, working on a maquette of what would become the most famous feature of the Fair, The Republic,  the 65 foot high sculpture by Daniel Chester French, which was the centerpiece of the Court of Honor, at the heart of the Fair.

In the background you can see the Fair under construction, highlighted by the half complete Ferris Wheel, the first of its kind in the world. As the reality of the sculptor's studio gives way to the magical land of fairies and nutcracker princes at the end of the act, the Fair becomes complete, in all of its glory.

Needless to say, this is a compelling production for anyone who like me, has a passion for Chicago history. It is especially poignant as the current home for Joffrey performances, Louis Sullivan's magnificent Auditorium Theater, (seen at the masthead of this blog), was built just before the fair. Just up the street, the Allerton Building of the Art Institute was built for the fair and served as the setting of one of the event's most memorable events, Swami Vivekananda's address to the World's Parliament of Religions, calling for worldwide tolerance of different faiths.

In a few years the Joffrey plans to leave the Auditorium and move to the West Loop, to the Civic Opera House, taking advantage of that venue's more elaborate backstage facilities. Perhaps when that happens, yet another production will be required setting the ballet during the Century of Progress Exposition which took place around the time the COH was built. 

As I write this, 2:00PM today, December 30, will be the last production this year of Joffrey's Nutcracker at the magnificent Auditorium. I have little doubt that it will return next year to the great hall in all its splendor. If you love classical dance with a slightly different twist, Christmas, tradition, architecture, or Chicago history, by all means make plans to see it.

In the meantime, happy 2018!

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