Inside a castle in the middle of Old Town, banners and shields decorate the walls, and dimly lit corridors lead to a great hall, with rows of wooden counters and seats facing a huge indoor theatre. On stage, they are performing “The Nutcracker,” but this performance is unlike any other, because instead of ballerinas, it features horses. Swordsmen clash on stallions, Cossack stuntmen flip and jump from one mount to another, and an Arabian dancer flirts with a rider, and then leaps to join him on horseback.
Horse performances are actually an old pastime for Chicago, as Dan Sampson will tell you. He owns the Noble Horse Dinner Theatre and Horse Performance, which is running “The Nutcracker” as its holiday show this year (see Stage section for details). “The CBS building downtown, if you look at it closely, was stables. And all stables did shows of some variety.” These large indoor theatres were called hippodromes, and were used to show off the training of horses and the bond between rider and mount. That’s exactly what Sampson’s property, just south of North Avenue on Sedgwick, did from the twenties to the seventies when it was known as Lakeshore Stables. Since then, it fell into disrepair, until 2003, when Sampson rounded up money from the city and various other investors, and refurnished the building as a historic landmark.
They started putting on shows a year ago, and Sampson used his own trained horses, shared with a farm outside of the city. (His group also runs the carriages that haul tourists around Michigan Avenue.) He also rounded up three horseback acrobats from Kazakhstan, led by Omar Chinibekov, a third-generation Cossack rider. Chinibekov explains in broken English how he went from traveling with a branch of the Moscow circus to performing at the Noble Horse: “I travel here with circus, I meet him, his idea I like.” Though his accent is heavy, Chinibekov is friendly and a marvel during the show, riding two horses standing up and jumping on and off of galloping steeds, although what he does here might not be so impressive back home. “In America, I’m like a cowboy… In my country, it’s a little bit different.”
Sampson says deciding to perform an equine version of the holiday classic wasn’t that difficult. “We didn’t think we could do it, and then we found that “The Nutcracker” was actually written for horse theater” (really only half true—the play was commissioned for ballet, but written to be performed with horses). Besides the acrobats, Sampson’s human actors come from all over the place: one is a ranch hand from Minnesota, another is a trained dancer, and yet another is a polo player. The horses are all trained inside the theatre, and can get testy—“Horses are like kids that never grow up,” Sampson laughs with a hint of exasperation—but are always up for performing. (Mike Schramm)
This production is now closed.