After a year of cancelled or virtual holiday programs, dance companies are gearing up again to stage their biggest ticket seller and the most famous ballet of all time. Much has changed since the winter of 2019, and the performance world is gingerly tiptoeing back into theaters, hoping to fill or mostly fill seats and entice the senses of masked audiences while following pandemic protocols. Staging big spectacle pieces like “The Nutcracker” with casts of dozens—in some cases hundreds—presents an extra level of complexity. And if that cast historically includes children, well, there’s a whole other set of difficult public health questions and risk assessments to sort through.
The Hyde Park School of Dance grappled with these questions as they prepared to bring “The Nutcracker” back to live audiences at University of Chicago’s Mandel Hall December 10-12. The school has staged a version of the holiday staple—a family favorite replete with roles for dancers of all ages—since its founding almost thirty years ago. In past productions 250 student dancers age seven and up would don colorful, sparkling costumes of snowflakes, toy soldiers, sugar plums and mice and perform for family and friends in the biggest show of the year. HPSD founding artistic director August Tye says a safe return to the costumes and lights meant that all the performers would need to be vaccinated. Currently only children aged twelve and up are approved for vaccination, so this year’s cast will be significantly smaller—a mere 150. As consolation to the younger kids, HPSD is compiling a video mashup of footage shot during classes—Nutcracker Stars of Tomorrow. “They’re very disappointed they won’t be staged this year,” Tye says. “And, of course, last year we couldn’t use everyone as well.”
Last winter HPSD, along with countless theater and dance companies, moved to video and created a film version of the production using only their studio dancers—advanced students who attend a set minimum number of classes each week. Tye says it was a challenge to plan the video production amidst mercurial safety guidelines. “We pivoted and pivoted,” she says. “We were going to film it live, but ten days before filming we were told we couldn’t and had to film each dancer separately. We had a great documentary filmmaker who did some amazing things with fading in and out and putting these dancers back together like a puzzle. I can’t thank him enough; it must have been a huge workload.” This year’s production will also be filmed and available to stream, with virtual watch parties the following weekend.
Live or at home, audiences will see an overall familiar “Nutcracker” ballet with tutu-ed snowflakes and flowers, which also includes some contemporary takes and welcome updates—notably to the party scene which contains a notorious parade of Asian and Middle Eastern stereotypes. Nine choreographers contribute to the updated HPSD rendition, eight on faculty who work across a variety of dance forms, plus guest choreographer Hana Liu, who created a dance with traditional Chinese movement, music and costumes in place of the original “Chinese tea” section. The slinky “Arabian coffee” dance has also been re-choreographed as a modern piece by HPSD’s Horton instructor. And next year, the production will include a new African dance section by faculty member Mark Vaughn. The mice and toy soldiers, who fight with swords in the original version, lay down their arms and duke it out in a hip-hop battle, with beats mixed by breaking instructor Jonathan St. Clair. The battle scene, which has been a hip-hop piece in the HPSD production for five years, gets updated again for 2021, pitting studio/commercial hip-hop dancing mice against traditional street breakdancing soldiers. “It will be kind of a new-school-versus-old-school and a neat twist on the battle scene,” Tye says. In addition to being more culturally respectful and responsible, these new sections provide a space for the students who practice forms other than ballet to show off their talent and hard work in front of a large audience. And surely it will be more interesting to members of that audience who don’t necessarily relish seeing the same two-hour ballet year after year.
Outrage and imperiousness over how to handle the sexist, racist and/or Eurocentric parts of the Christmas canon is becoming as seasonal as pumpkin spice and fruitcake. Professional companies would do well to take note of HPSD’s treatment of one of these historically sacred cows—the most performed ballet of all time and the financial buoy of countless ballet companies. Instead of looking at Tchaikovsky’s most famous—and at the time of its writing universally panned—composition as fully realized and untouchable on one hand or blanketly offensive and suitable only for the dustbin on the other, HPSD has taken the approach of keeping what serves their students and changing what doesn’t. The result is the possibility of a living work instead of a dusty museum piece, an entertainment relevant to the young dancers it showcases while preserving music and performance that has heralded the season for generations.
At Mandel Hall on the University of Chicago campus, 1131 East 57th, (773)493-8498. December 10-12. $30, $25 seniors, $10 students and children 5-18, kids under 5 free. hydeparkdance.org/tickets.