By Lynn Colburn Shapiro
How many Nutcrackers does it take to change a lightbulb? For Tye August, the answer is fourteen, the number of years the Lyric Opera Ballet Mistress and choreographer has been staging this version of The Nutcracker for The Hyde Park School of Dance (HPSD), where she is also Founding Artistic Director.
And it’s not just one lightbulb, but a whole community of bright lights that keep this production vibrant. Featuring the largest cast to date--200 children and adults ranging in age from seven to seventy (and the 70 tots ages four to six in the separate, Pre-Ballet Holiday show preceding the December 14 and 15 matinees) and dozens of backstage volunteers from the greater south side Chicago community--this year’s production marks the culmination of the 20th anniversary year of the school.
The beloved Nutcracker Ballet, based on the E.T.A. Hoffman story and set to the music of Tchaikovsky, premiered in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1892 and has enjoyed immense popularity in countless productions across America, Chicago being no exception with more than its share of sparkling productions to choose from.
“Our Nutcracker is unique in Chicago,” says Tye, “because it’s a story version, so there’s a bit of narration.” HPSD’s one-hour and fifteen-minute production features narrator/storyteller David Kleeman, whose daughters grew up in the school. For ten years, he told the story on stage as Drosselmeyer, a role he played before moving out of state. Today, his recorded voice guides the audience on young Clara’s adventure, beginning with the magnificent holiday Christmas party where the mysterious Uncle Drosselmeyer dazzles guests with magical gifts. A Christmas tree grows through the roof, the Nutcracker comes to life as a gallant prince to fight a midnight battle with the giant Mouse King and his minions, and he and Clara are escorted to the Land of Snow and The Kingdom of Sweets by the Sugar Plum Fairy.
Another aspect that distinguishes HPSD’s Nutcracker is the degree to which its neighborhood has engaged in its growth and development to make it the truly community-based holiday spectacle it has become. “I have amazing volunteers!” Tye gushes. The dozens of volunteer stagehands, costume stitchers, scenic artists, designers and technical production personnel who make this production possible are Hyde Park and South Side neighbors, parents, grandparents, and relatives of the school’s students. Many even perform on stage as Party Parents, maids and guests in Act I.
It has become a tradition for Chicago VIP’s to make an annual appearance as well. Gracing the Act II festivities in The Land of The Sweets this year, 5th Ward Alderman Leslie Hairston shares the role of the comic Mother Ginger with Hyde Park Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Wallace Goode and State Representative Kimberly DuBouclet.
All the dancing roles are performed by HPSD students, many of who have grown up in the school, where scholarships ensure that no child is denied access to dance classes. This year the technically challenging Grand Pas De Deux will be performed by high school seniors Kathryn Harris and D’arius Malone, the choreography staged especially for them by Joffrey Ballet alum Teanna Zarro. Tye, along with her sister, associate director Amy Tye, and staff have choreographed the production to highlight the individual strengths of their students. “I grew up dancing a Nutcracker every year in my home town, which is Kalamazoo, Michigan, ” Tye reminisced. “My teacher also did a narrated, shortened version, which I thought was a good idea. Our Nutcracker is based on my beginnings in Kalamazoo. I expanded a little bit because we have a lot more people. Here it quickly grew to numbers over one hundred as we got rolling.”
Tye originally came to Chicago to teach for Maria Tallchief at the Chicago Ballet. When the school lost its lease on the near North Side, board members found a new home in the Hyde Park Unitarian Church. When Tallchief retired a year later, she asked Tye to take over, and The Hyde Park School of Dance was born in 1993.
As part of STEPS, the school’s community engagement program, a special abridged version of the Nutcracker will be performed on Friday, December 13 for over 800 school children, many of whom have never seen a ballet before. A Sugar Plum Tea featuring costumed characters and catered treats will take place after the Sunday, December 15th matinee.
Performances take place on Saturday, December 14 at 2 and 7 p.m. and Sunday, December 15 at 2 p.m. at Mandel Hall, 1131 E. 57th Street. Tickets are $20; $10 for children ages 5-18, seniors and students with ID; and free for children younger than 5. Tickets for the Sugar Plum Tea following the Sunday, December 15 matinee are $40 for adults; $20 for children ages 5-18, seniors and students with ID; and free for children under 5. Tickets and information are available at 773-493-8498 or http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/508878