The Nutcracker season has officially begun. All over Chicagoland for the past several months, phalanxes of slipper-clad dancers have been working on battered marley floors, steaming up windows as they rehearse this holiday staple.
The Nutcracker Ballet was originally based on a somewhat scary children’s tale by E.T.A. Hoffman, with choreography initially begun by Petipa and eventually completed by his longtime assistant Lev Ivanov in 1892 in Imperial Russia. It featured a specially commissioned score by Tchaikovsky. It was not a huge success at that time. Part of the problem then has become why it provides around 40 percent of all ballet ticket revenues in the U.S. today: the show features actual children. Ballet companies feature all the children in their school and assure sellout crowds!
Fast forward to the 20th century U.S., where San Francisco Ballet premiered the work on this continent on Christmas eve 1944. It would take another decade before George Balanchine would take up the call and premiere his iconic version in 1954. And like a weed, The Nutcracker spread. I counted at least 15 versions being presented this month in Chicago, including a tap interpretation, and a nearly danceless dramatic rendition at the House Theatre.
Right around the corner from the behemoth Joffrey version at the Auditorium Theatre running this month, this coming weekend only you will find another stellar Nutcracker in the jewel box Studebaker Theatre on the first floor of the historic Fine Arts Building at 410 S. Michigan Ave. Up on the third floor, in a straight-out-of-central-casting ballet studio, A&A Ballet, headed by Bolshoi-trained Alexai Kremnev, alongside his wife and artistic partner Anna Reznik, has been working with four casts of young dancers to put on The Art Deco Nutcracker with all of the high art, breathtaking physical prowess, and gorgeous costumes you expect for a world-class dance company—with a twist. Mother Ginger is a fruitcake! and gymnasts will roll out from that oversized skirt. Clara will be in a swing. There will be Art Deco touches throughout. Kremnev says his inspiration is the Ballet Russe and a picture of Nijinsky—and the production quality from costumes to projections brings back an era of art and luxury. But let’s face it: we go to The Nutcracker to see dancing. And such dancing you will see.
Kremnev and Reznik originally migrated to Chicago to found the Joffrey Academy of Dance and the Joffrey Studio Company. Before departing Joffrey and founding their own company, which is soon to move into its own space in the south Loop, they were well-known nationally for their ability to foster careers in the art form, and they have doubled down with A&A, which is to the benefit of this production. Their students have been winning competitions (yes there is an Olympics of Ballet) and ending up at major companies around the world and are happy to come back for a professional visit as soloists for their youth company and professional company. All of the A&A companies and the school will be on the stage: about 145 performers in all. Lucky Chicago audiences will get to see emerging stars and future ballet superstars on stage this weekend in The Art Deco Nutcracker. A brief look at the work in progress indicates this will be a ballet lover’s dream production. The speed and agility of this young company is astounding. A&A training goes for classical precision, athletic versatility and strong character work. This is an organization to keep an eye on. Next year they will premiere Pinocchio!
A&A’s The Art Deco Nutcracker will run at the Studebaker Theatre, 410 S. Michigan Ave., this weekend—December 6,7 and 8. Tickets are priced from $30 to $50.