WTTW goes behind the scenes as the Joffrey Ballet creates a new Nutcracker in Making a New American Nutcracker, which is available to stream at wttw.com/nutcracker.
It may seem that it’s a holiday tradition stretching back into time immemorial, but The Nutcracker didn’t appear in Chicago until 1940, almost fifty years after its premiere in Russia. And that was just excerpts – the full ballet didn’t arrive until 1956, and then it was performed in spring instead of at Christmas. It wasn’t until 1965 that Chicagoans had their own Nutcracker to return to year after year.
The Nutcracker first came to Chicago in much the same way as it did to the rest of the country: in excerpts performed by the touring Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, which was the first company to perform the ballet in America. (Tchaikovsky’s score had already received plenty of hearings, as the suite drawn from the ballet was a popular programming choice for orchestras.)
This was a time when Chicago hosted three touring ballet companies for major residencies in one year; the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo alone had an eleven-day, fifteen-performance engagement at the end of 1940. During that residency, on December 26, they gave the Chicago premiere of excerpts from The Nutcracker at a benefit in the Auditorium Theatre for the Church Mission of Help. The Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo returned to Chicago every year for the next two decades, often bringing the beloved Nutcracker.
So by the time New York City Ballet (NYCB) came to Chicago in spring of 1956 with a full-length production of The Nutcracker (returning with it in 1957), Chicagoans were probably familiar with the holiday chestnut. (Chicago was a favorite city of NYCB: their first performance outside New York was here, in 1951.) Their production, choreographed by George Balanchine, popularized the ballet across the country the next year, when it was broadcast live by CBS on Christmas Day. But Chicagoans were amongst the first to see it, at the Civic Opera House.
50 children from the city were chosen by audition to take part. In 1957, Wynne Delacoma, former classical music critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, was one of them. She played a soldier who battled mice, coming on stage right after the Christmas tree grew. “The final thing in the audition was, you had to fit into the costume,” she recalls.
“It was terribly exciting to go to the gigantic opera house – I think it was the first time I was there,” she continues. “Children can be very snobbish and sophisticated, and we judged the audience by whether they applauded when the tree grew. It’s the kind of experience that’s just imprinted on your brain.”
Apparently the children weren’t the only ones who loved the production. The Chicago Tribune’s Claudia Cassidy described it as “a wonderfully imaginative cornucopia,” writing after the 1956 Chicago premiere that “Almost everybody loves The Nutcracker… But we never knew a Nutcracker like this.” A third week of performances was added by popular demand.
In 1965, Chicago finally received its own Nutcracker. In May, the Chicago Tribune announced its sponsorship of a new full-length production to be held at Christmastime in McCormick Place’s massive Arie Crown Theater. The ten performances of the ballet would raise money for charity and were choreographed by Ruth Page, the choreographer and ballet mistress of the Lyric Opera Ballet at the time. (The Tribune later described her as “the most celebrated choreographer to spend her career in the city.”) As in the NYCB production, 50 children were included, while two soloists from the Royal Danish Ballet danced the grand pas de deux. A month before the production opened, the Tribune noted that the ballet “is expected to become a tradition of holiday performances in Chicago.”
And it did. Over the next 32 years, Page’s production was performed 31 times. (There was a two-year hiatus after a fire at McCormick Place in the late ‘60s.) It became a cherished tradition for many, as is obvious from the aggrieved letters to the Tribune when the paper announced that 1997 would be the last year of the production – it had become too expensive, and attendance had dropped by half in the previous four years. The loss of the show “is a disservice to the people, and especially the children, of Chicago,” wrote one reader.
“I saw the Ruth Page production a lot. A lot,” recalls Dan Andries, the producer of WTTW’s documentary Making a New American Nutcracker. “My mom took me from a young age – I saw it so many times, and then took my high school girlfriend, as did my brother – it was a double date. My mom was very proud, especially because the two young women hadn’t seen it but we had. The journey to see it, often on very cold nights, and the sense of slush on car wheels, and entering McCormick Place through caverns of underground parking, was as memorable as the production. People dressed up, but sometimes we walked in with wet ankles and salt-spattered shoes.”
Over its many years, the Ruth Page production raised more than eight million dollars in grants for literacy and employment programs, and three million people attended performances. (It has recently been revived by the Ruth Page Civic Ballet and can now be seen at Northeastern Illinois University.)
A fresh-faced newcomer to Chicago may have contributed to its demise. In 1995, the Joffrey Ballet moved to Chicago from New York. They had their own Nutcracker, produced by the company founder Robert Joffrey and cofounder Gerald Arpino, that premiered in 1987. Joffrey’s career was bookended by the ballet: he had played a gondola boy as a child in his hometown of Seattle, and his Nutcracker for his own company ended up being his last major production before he died in 1988.
Their first year in Chicago, the Joffrey only performed the Nutcracker out of town while on tour. But in 1996 and 1997, they offered it in Rosemont. The next year, after the close of the Page production, they moved to the Auditorium Theatre and picked up the Tribune’s sponsorship. 18 years later, the Joffrey retired their classic production to reimagine the whole ballet. That’s a whole other story.