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Hyde Park has the season's biggest, coolest Nutcracker
By Sheri Flanders

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The holiday season is here, which means ( among other things ) the arrival of The Nutcracker, the ubiquitous holiday classic staged by dance companies around the world.

Beloved as Tchaikovsky's popular music may be, bringing something new to the same, rote performance year after year can be a challenge. This year, however, the Hyde Park School of Dance has a few new tricks hidden in its satin pointe shoes for its Nutcracker this weekend at Mandel Hall.

To celebrate its 25th anniversary season, this year's Nutcracker will feature a 175-member company and will feature a blend of hip-hop, ballet and modern dance, infusing the piece with new excitement and style.

"Some of these older stories need to be addressed in a current context for them to survive." says Hyde Park School of Dance Founding Artistic Director August Tye, who is also the ballet mistress and choreographer for the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Initially worried that traditionalists might dislike the change, Tye pushed boundaries nevertheless. "People are ready for something new, something culturally current," Tye said.

Under Ty's direction, various choreographers are responsible for different scenes that unfold as a young girl travels to a fantasy land filled with dancing sweets from around the world. Dance instructor and choreographer Jonathan St. Clair is responsible for the Battle scene, which unfolds between the titular toy and a host of feisty mice.. St. Clair has infused the scene with hip-hop elements.

The traditional war scene between the Mouse King and the Nutcracker has been reimagined as a dance-battle, set against a version of Tchaikovsky's score combined with a Hip-Hop beat that St. Clair mixed himself. Ty says that they wanted to send the message to youth that "you don't have to solve a problem with swords and guns. We still hit the mouse with the shoe, though!"

For the uninitiated, the dance elements of hip-hop include breaking ( which consists of acrobatic moves tied together with toprocks, downrocks and freezes ), and popping and locking ( which contrasts sharper, jerky movements with smoother moves. ) St. Clair said he loves "seeing young people manifesting their greatness…learning to cultivate their skills and talents at a young age."

"Breaking is self-driven. It doesn't happen the same way ballet happens. With Breaking, you go on an inventive, investigative process. ... Plan, do, repeat," St. Clair said. Dance has helped him as a parent, as a teacher, and with skills such as drawing and cooking, St. Clair added. When he tried to make a low-sugar version of peanut-butter cups from scratch, for example, his hip-hop training helped him investigate the cooking process until it worked correctly. "You get a feel for process. You don't always need to have a teacher. Separate your identity from your performance. Separate your identity from your outcomes," he said.

The large cast is representative of the Hyde Park neighborhood and the legacy of the dance school, featuring students from all different backgrounds, including young dancers who perform pre-show, and senior dancers who have passed through its doors over the years.

The school lets the diverse student population know that dance could be a career. When asked about the success of Misty Copeland, Tye says that two of her most exceptional dancers of color did not get accepted to prestigious companies, even though they were great candidates. "The world has not changed even though there is Misty Copeland [the first African-American female principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre]. Companies are looking for diversity, but it is still not enough," Tye said.

Olivia Gotsch, 18, started taking lessons with the Hyde Park School at age 4 and worked her way up through the ranks. She'll dance as the Snow Queen in this year's performance.

"Dance and ballet get a negative reputation because of the narrow-minded definition of what makes a dancer," Gotsch said, noting the restrictions on body size and the fact that ballet's traditional pink tights and shoes aren't representative of every skin tone. The Walter Peyton High School Senior said she finds the Hyde Park Dance School's program more inclusive, as well as a place of incredible community. "I've met some of my closest friends here, the people I rely on the most, who are predominantly women," she said.

Her favorite part of the Nutcracker? "When we're onstage warming up before the show with our stage makeup half-done…we've gotten here, we've put in the work, and now we're here to enjoy it."

The Hyde Park School of Dance's Nutcracker will be performed at 7 p.m. Friday, Dec. 14; 1 and 6 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 15; and 2 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 16 at Mandel Hall, 1131 E. 57th St. Tickets are $10-$40 each; visit or call 773-493-8498.

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