This weekend, the Hyde Park School of Dance (HPSD) will once again cap the year with the studio’s annual “Nutcracker” ballet. Now in her 25th year of leadership, HPSD founding artistic director August Tye (who somehow also has the time to be ballet mistress and choreographer for the Lyric Opera of Chicago), started her school’s “Nutcracker” tradition almost from the very beginning.
“This is our 24th ‘Nutcracker,’ I think,” she said in a phone interview. “We started by doing it in the studio, because we had very few students, and especially very few advanced students when we started out. I think our oldest dancer was 12. And then some of the teachers would dance, because we were still young enough to do that!”
Tye called that first year a “feel-good, family party,” which has grown into a 90-minute narrated ballet with 166 performers and VIP celebrities rotating the role of Mother Ginger at the University of Chicago’s beautiful Mandel Hall.
A major change came about four years ago when Tye and her faculty reimagined the battle scene to appeal to kids enrolled in jazz, modern or breaking classes who wanted to perform in “The Nutcracker.”
“It was kind of a tricky thing to wrap our heads around,” said Tye, adding that her team started talking about the idea about two years before actually making it happen.
“We have a tradition of placing everybody who auditions. So, a lot of times, those kids would end up in the mouse role. … I thought we could tailor this ‘Nutcracker’ to fit our student body a little bit better.”
Instead of swords and guns, the mice and soldiers are embroiled in a dance battle of ballet versus hip hop, set to a musical mix by Jonathan St. Clair which blends b-boy beats with some familiar samples from the Tchaikovsky score.
“We were scared, because ‘Nutcracker’ is so traditional,” she said, knowing that her audience would either love it or hate it, and much care was put into creating smooth transitions in and out of the new battle scene. Students and parents responded really positively, so Tye says the change is here to stay.
In the two-and-a-half decades since Tye launched her “Nutcracker,” many dance artists and audiences have come to terms with problematic cultural representations in the second act divertissements. As a studio owner, particularly one who caters to the diverse Hyde Park neighborhood, it’s an issue she and her faculty have become acutely aware of in both how she builds the school’s productions and in casting young dancers in the roles available in traditional ballets.
“When I first came to Chicago from Michigan, I’d never heard of the words ‘cultural appropriation,’” she said. "I just thought ‘Nutcracker’ was ‘Nutcracker.’ I saw it as a traditional ballet. I had to learn from my colleagues who are life-long Chicagoans and come from different backgrounds.”
It’s a topic the school has tackled in other ballets, too, particularly in a wholly re-imagined version of “Cinderella,” performed last spring. “We’re very aware of how many people view ‘The Nutcracker,’ and we do our best with it,” she said. While there have been small changes to “The Nutcracker” choreography in efforts to appeal to modern sentiments about non-Western cultures, Tye admits that the huge financial investment it would take to overhaul costumes is a barrier to moving in a completely new direction with the ballet, though she’s considering it for the future.
"If you stop opening your mind and stop learning and stop progressing, what’s the point? I always want to hear what people feel and what they see in “The Nutcracker” or any piece that I’m doing. Because it’s not for me; it’s for the audience, and for the dancers to be proud of.”
Hyde Park School of Dance’s production of “The Nutcracker” runs Dec. 14-16 at Mandel Hall, 1131 E. 57th Street. Tickets are $25, available from their See Chicago Dance event page.