From Hip-Hop to the 1893 World’s Fair, Chicago Nutcracker Productions Look to Honor and Reimagine the Classic Holiday Story

The Joffrey Ballet Company performs “The Nutcracker.” (Credit: Todd Rosenberg)The Joffrey Ballet Company performs “The Nutcracker.” (Credit: Todd Rosenberg)

It’s a holiday classic celebrated on stages across the world every year.

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Formally known as “The Nutcracker, OP. 71,” the ballet was created in 1892 by Pyotr IIyich Tchaikovsky. In its simplest version, the story explores a child’s imagination on Christmas Eve. But since its inception and wild success, there have been countless new adaptations, primarily mounted with ballet companies around the world. 

Here in Chicago, a number of reimaginings of the classic story demonstrate how the family tradition can be transformed to fit the interests of modern audiences while also celebrating the Christmas magic that made that original ballet such a success.

For the Joffrey Ballet, “The Nutcracker” is on the schedule every year. With choreography by Christopher Wheeldon, their story takes the audience back to the World’s Columbian Exposition, the landmark world’s fair held in Chicago 1893. Continuing the tradition of exploring the story through a child’s perspective, the current Joffrey version focuses on Marie and her Nutcracker Prince and their holiday adventure. 

“I believe the most powerful force in the world is love and our most powerful tool is the imagination,” says Ashley Theater, artistic director for the Joffrey Ballet. “Occasionally, we come together and explore our shared humanity. The theater is one of those gathering places. ‘The Nutcracker’ offers this opportunity each year. Choreographer Christopher Wheeldon and his team reconsidered the Nutcracker story, placing it in our city, amongst working folks. These are people who struggle and dream. These are people who search for love and create a family … people like us.”

With major challenges facing the entertainment industry in the Loop since the pandemic, new variations of the holiday classic are hoping to bring in new audiences and help them re-engage with the city’s art scene. 

The Joffrey Ballet Company performs “The Nutcracker.” (Credit: Cheryl Mann) The Joffrey Ballet Company performs “The Nutcracker.” (Credit: Cheryl Mann)

There are some signs of post-pandemic good news for theater companies.

There was a 47% increase in attendance during winter activities in the last quarter of 2022 comparison 2021, according to the 2022 data reports by the Chicago Loop Alliance. The Joffrey Ballet’s “Nutcracker” has remained one of the top contenders for annual show attendance, but the alliance says there’s another way to increase those numbers this frigid holiday season. 

“Change the normal audiences for these holiday shows,” says Ariella Gibson with the Chicago Loop Alliance. “There’s no harm in appealing to more diverse audiences. That could be done through new renditions of the holiday classics.”

Performers on stage in “The Hip Hop Nutcracker.” (Credit: Broadway in Chicago)Performers on stage in “The Hip Hop Nutcracker.” (Credit: Broadway in Chicago)

One of those includes “The Hip Hop Nutcracker,” playing at the Cadillac Palace Theatre from Dec. 12-17.

“For me, to reimagine a classic is to bring more people together,” says director and choreographer Jennifer Weber. “That’s what’s special about ‘The Hip Hop Nutcracker’ and reimagined classics in general.”

The show has been touring nationally for the last 10 years or so, and this year, their showcase will also be honoring 50 years of hip-hop music. Their rendition features hip-hop pioneer Kurtis Blow, who serves as MC of the production. 

“He does a sort of an opening set that sets off the show,” Weber said. “We start the show off with old school hip-hop, that’s really our celebration of 50 years. Kurtis has been there since the beginning of this production. The fact that we have a pioneer of early hip hop bridged into the gap of our show, there’s no better way to celebrate.”

When asked if she’s worried about potential pushback from those that might prefer a classic rendition of the holiday tale, Weber says their version tastefully appeals to both audiences. 

“Respect is a key thing,” Weber continues. 

“What’s at the heart of the Nutcracker? The score. That music is the soundtrack to the holidays, you hear it literally everywhere,” Weber said. “It’s more than pop culture. It takes over. Hip-hop is what the dancers bring to that music. We’ve made it so authentic to them and the [dance] style and story and characters we created. It’s our version of the show, but we stay true to the narrative.”

Josue Gomez on stage in “The Sugar Hill.” (Credit: Jonathan Taylor)Josue Gomez on stage in “The Sugar Hill.” (Credit: Jonathan Taylor)

But the Nutcracker renditions don’t stop there, there’s also a jazz version coming to the Auditorium Theatre titled the “Sugar Hill Nutcracker.”

This rendition honors jazz legends Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn with a score tailored to their music. Set in the 1930s, the production introduces the audience to the daughter of a high-society Black family in Manhattan in a dream world titled Sugar Hill set in Harlem. 

That version run from December 20-30. 

Visit each production’s website for more information on performances and tickets:

Follow Angel Idowu on Twitter: @angelidowu3

Angel Idowu is the JCS Fund of the DuPage Foundation Arts Correspondent.

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