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  • Megan Kudla

Joffrey Ballet’s Nutcracker: Chicago’s Christmas Story

Updated: Dec 6, 2023

Cover photo: Hyuma Kiyosawa in The Nutcracker. Credit to Katie Miller.


When I was a kid, my parents took me to see Robert Joffrey’s The Nutcracker, a beloved Christmas tradition in Chicago since 1987. Although, I admit, I do not remember attending quite well, I do recall wearing a festive Christmas dress. And my mom tells me that I requested we “stay and watch it again” once the performance ended. (I was a bit enthralled with dance and theater, even then.)


Fast forward to years later, when I begged my parents to return, so I could relive my childhood memory. As a teenager, I still felt that same magic I did when I was younger as soon as the overture began and especially when the snowflakes started to fall at the end of Act I when the Snow Queen welcomed us into Clara’s dream.


It’s been 7 years since the debut of the freshly renovated production choreographed by two-time Tony Award®-winning Christopher Wheeldon and set during the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Now, as an adult, I was excited to see what this reimagining would look like–especially since the setting of the story would be moved from Germany to right here in Chicago, a city I now know and love intimately. In family tradition, I brought along my parents to create yet another Christmas memory.


Marie and the Great Impresario's apprentice with the Nutcracker in the Joffrey Ballet's The Nutcracker in Chicago. Featured on Round Trip with Colleen Kelly.
Anabelle de la Nuez & José Pablo Castro Cuevas in The Nutcracker. Photo by Katie Miller.

The new tale brings us to the time when the construction of the World’s Fair is underway. Marie and Franz live with their widowed mother in a shack within a neighborhood of immigrant workers and families, coming together to celebrate Christmas. Marie’s mother is a sculptress who is creating the Statue of the Republic, which will be a quintessential piece of the World's Columbian Exposition skyline. The Mother falls in love with the Great Impresario, our “Drosselmeyer” character, who is based off of Daniel Burnham, the chief architect of the real-life fair.


Something distinct to this production was the use of folk-inspired steps within the choreography, accompanied by folk instrumentation that provided a new take on Tchaikovsky's score. Rather than the usual elegant party in a European parlor, the gathering at Marie’s home becomes a warm and welcoming neighborhood celebration where traditional country dances are performed.


The set design, by Julian Crouch, transforms from a cozy Christmas Carol-like cabin into a grandiose gold pavilion where Marie dreams of the upcoming World’s Fair. The Queen of the Fair, a vision in gold who emulates the Statue of the Republic (and fittingly played by Marie’s mother), takes us on a journey around the world through the fair’s exhibitions. Some of the more strikingly different pieces from the original The Nutcracker production were the ferris wheel scene taking the place of petal-adorned dancers in Waltz of the Flowers and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West performing to the music of Trepak (Russian Dance).

Cast of the Joffrey Ballet's The Nutcracker dancing to Waltz of the Flowers set in front of a Ferris Wheel at the Chicago World's Fair.
The Joffrey Ballet Ensemble in The Nutcracker. Photo by Katie Miller.

However, some things remained the same: the extraordinary growth of the Christmas tree, the classic rat vs soldier battle, and the snow scene–which, and perhaps it may have been a trick of my memory, seemed to have even more snow falling from the ceiling this time around.


Many of the traditional pas de deuxs were still performed, such as between Marie and the Prince. But some of my favorite moments involved new additions to the choreography–during the snow scene, the cast of children performers came on stage to join the Joffrey company members in creating a mosaic of snowflake shapes that weaved through one another in a swirling wintery wonderland.


(Did I mention, I’m a bit of a sucker for the snow scene?)


A blend of old and new, The Nutcracker still retained that holiday spirit which everyone flocks to the theater for each winter. This time, it just had a more familiar setting; the tale has been adapted as Chicago’s own Christmas story.


For more information about the production and tickets, visit Joffrey.org/Nutcracker. To learn about the Lyric Opera House, visit lyricopera.org.


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