For countless people around the world, “The Nutcracker” is synonymous with the holiday season. Be it the tale of Marie or Clara and Fritz or Franz, the story has been choreographed and re-choreographed, told in myriad ways. The Joffrey Ballet of Chicago’s 2016 iteration transports spectators young and old back to the World’s Fair, circa 1893. Christopher Wheeldon may swap the Sugar Plum Fairy for a Golden Statue and Russian Trepak for Buffalo Bill, but the essence of this holiday ballet remains the same.
For me, the sweeping melodies and striking harmonies that fill the opening of Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s memory-inducing soundtrack hit close to home. I hold vivid memories of me, nine-years-old, cast as a doll in Robert Joffrey’s original Nutcracker near and dear to my heart. Countless hours spent in the studio watching the main company warm up, trying on professional grade costumes for the first time, and sitting patiently backstage with new friends at the Auditorium Theatre—it shaped the dancer I am today. For three years, December was filled with rehearsals and carpool rides as I jumped from Land of the Sweets to the Snow Scene and finally to the Party Scene. Families were made with friends I’ll never forget, and just listening to the “Miniature Overture” forces a smile onto my face.
Thinking about today’s “Nutcrackers,” I can only hope those same special moments remain intact for the children in the cast. COVID-19, masks and vaccination approvals have impacted each of us in our day-to-day lives. So, how has it shaped the aspiring primas and primos hoping to get picked as a party scene child or snow angel?
Joffrey’s children’s cast ballet master Suzanne Lopez took time out of her busy schedule to enlighten me about the selection process, rehearsal structure and performance plans for the impending season. Lopez addressed a number of topics during our conversation, but early on she stressed how important this time is.
“I think we all, in some ways, need ‘The Nutcracker’ right now,” Lopez said. “The dancers need it, the children’s cast needs it and the audience needs this sort of feeling of returning to normal. And we will have masks waiting in the wings for all dancers when they walk offstage. Safety is a top priority for us.”
The kids that make up the 2021 children’s cast have been working together since their auditions in September. Every young dancer is vaccinated and wears a mask each time they set foot in the building, but there have been some changes to the selection criteria this year.
“In our new ‘Nutcracker’ we have some kids as young as eight, they’re typically cast as what we affectionately call the ‘Snow Babies,’” Lopez said. “This year we had to be creative, so we decided pretty early on that the minimum age would be 12, which means we’d be doing the production without the Snow Babies.”
With two casts, between the ages of 12 and 16, the total number of students involved in the production is lower than in years past. What used to be a complete group of up to 70 kids is now a total of 50. And they’re all as eager and excited as ever.
“I don’t believe there’s an age limit to the excitement that comes from being in the children’s cast,” Lopez said. “Kids carry these memories with them for a lifetime, and we want to make this special for them. For the company dancers it’s just ‘The Nutcracker’ — we do it every year. But to see the kids and have their enthusiasm to feed off of has been energizing for them as well.”
This is the Joffrey’s first “Nutcracker” season at the Lyric Opera House, something Lopez said they are incredibly excited about.
“It’s a bigger stage, so we’re really going to get to spread things out. It hasn’t changed much about the production, but we can always use more space!” she said.
In accordance with COVID protocols, Lyric is requiring all audience members to wear masks and provide proof of vaccination above age 12, however, they are allowing younger kids to attend this performance without proof of vaccination.
“The Nutcracker is so many people’s first ballets,” Lopez said. “Families come as part of tradition every year, and maybe this year there are going to be some people who start a new tradition—we welcome them all. We, as a company, are just so excited to do this again.”
The Joffrey Ballet’s “Nutcracker” runs Dec. 4-26 at the Lyric Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Dr.
Single tickets start at $35 and are available for purchase at The Joffrey Ballet’s official Box Office located in the lobby of Joffrey Tower, 10 E. Randolph Street and by telephone at 312-386-8905, or online at joffrey.org.