The Dance of a Family Tradition – The Nutcracker Experience

“The Nutcracker” tradition runs deep in our family. One spring, yes, spring, during the late 1950s, the New York City Ballet brought its fabled production of George Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker” to the Civic Opera House. My youngest sister, who was enrolled in ballet classes at the time, auditioned and was accepted as a toy soldier.

We lived in Chicago and my mother took her on the el, every day, first to rehearsals, where Mom sat and read a book day after day, and later to the production. Once the show opened, my father drove my sister home after each performance.

When Ruth Page presented her first “Nutcracker” in Arie Crown Theatre, we bundled our young sons into the car and drove in from Deerfield year after year. And when the lights went down and Tchaikovsky’s grand overture began, we would look at each other and smile. It was lovely to be there together.

One of the most satisfying moments in my motherhood was when our oldest two boys were in high school and, as a Christmas present, took their girlfriends to the ballet. The girls had never seen it, which made the invitation all the sweeter.

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Now that our own Chicago-based Joffrey Ballet presents Robert Joffrey’s “The Nutcracker” every holiday season, families can begin their own traditions and build up treasured memories. This year’s production begins Dec. 11 and runs through Dec. 27 at the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago.

There are distinct features to Joffrey’s “Nutcracker.” It is set, not in Russia, but in the United States in the mid-1850s. The ladies wear great hoop skirts, the gentlemen waistcoats and the children’s vintage-style party clothes are adorable. As the ballet opens, dancers stand perfectly still, creating a magnificent tableau.

Also, there is always one child who is in a wheelchair and is part of a family group in the opening party scene.

But the ballet does not wander far from the beloved story that Tchaikovsky based on E.T.A. Hoffmann’s early 19th Century German tale, “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.” The hideous many-headed Mouse King and his minions still come out at night and–parents, be warned–little boys always want the Mouse King to win!

With the sweetness of familiarity, audiences will again see Clara, her naughty brother Fritz who breaks her nutcracker doll, the courtly Nutcracker Prince, the pastel-clad waltzing flowers, the King and Queen of Snow and, of course, the Sugar Plum Fairy and Mother Ginger, that enormous puppet with a passel of children doing cartwheels and somersaults as they spring out from beneath her gigantic skirt.

This year’s lavish production includes the entire Joffrey company, local children’s choruses and 120 young dancers. About 150 youngsters auditioned Sept. 13 and learned on the spot if they would be dancing. Children fill the parts of Polichinelles (Mother Ginger’s children), mice, dolls, soldiers, snow trees, angels and party guests.

Robert Joffrey created his vision of “The Nutcracker” in 1987 and the production was first presented in Chicago in 1996. Since then, families have been watching the Christmas tree grow, Dr. Drosselmeyer come and go cloaked in mystery, and wild and imaginative ethnic character cast their magical spells.

And, yes, our family tradition continues. Now I take my grandchildren and when the lights go down and the curtain goes up, I look at them and smile. It is lovely to be there together.