Most Chicagoans familiar with dance know the names Robert Joffrey and Ruth Page, but before the Joffrey Ballet relocated to Chicago in 1995, Ruth Page was one of the only professional gigs in town for a ballet dancer. Despite her name being most closely associated today with superior pre-professional dance training, during her lifetime Ruth Page was more interested in choreography, directing a reputable professional touring company and developing a close relationship with the Lyric Opera.
Delores Lipinski Long was a dancer in Page’s company from 1954-73 and co-founded the Ruth Page School of Dance with her late husband, Larry Long. In a 2011 interview with Chicago Public Radio’s Alison Cuddy, Lipinski Long reflected on the legendary dancers Ruth Page brought to Chicago to dance in her ballets: Rudolph Nureyev, Erik Bruhn, and Maria and Marjorie Tallchief to name a few. Patricia McBride, Helgi Tómasson, and Peter Martins specifically danced in Page’s production of The Nutcracker, now under Lipinski Long’s direction with Victor Alexander, who assumed the school’s directorship after Larry Long’s death.
In continuing with this tradition of bringing exceptional artists to Chicago, the Ruth Page Center for the Arts celebrated its 50th annual Nutcracker production Dec. 5 and 6 at Northeastern Illinois University with a special artistic exchange between Cuba and Chicago.
Cuba Y Chicago is the first official collaboration with Cuba’s Escuela Nacional de Ballet, one of the most reputable dance schools in the world. It’s no secret that Chicago has a wealth of dance talent from Cuba, including Victor Alexander and his wife Maray Gutierrez, Jessie Gutierrez (Hedwig Dances) and Michel Rodriguez Cintra (The Cambrians, Lucky Plush Productions). Gutierrez and Cintra have regularly appeared in Page’s Nutcracker, joined this season by special guests Katherine Ochoa Lipiz and Narciso Alejandro Medina Arias from Escuela Nacional de Ballet as Sugar Plum Fairy and Cavalier in a crisp and truly outstanding interpretation of the original Petipa/Ivanov Grand Pas de Deux.
With Jessie Gutierrez as the Arabian soloist (partnered by Julien Valme) and Cintra a magnificent bouncing bean in the Russian Trepak, in addition to a tour de force performance from Sarah Marley as the Rose, and Kristina Isabelle as Mother Ginger on stilts, the astounding second act of Ruth Page’s Nutcracker made up for the first.
That’s not to say that the first act was bad. Kathleen Darley and Garrett Anderson nailed the Snow Pas de Deux, and John Landeroz was witty and commanding as the giant, puppet-like Mouse King. Young performers Samantha Sacks and Ivan Aguayo, as Clara and the Prince, showed maturity, solid technique and strong character work in their performances. The children were adorable and well-rehearsed.
However, party guests gauchely narrating the whole first act from party scene through the beginning of the snow scene was unnecessarily redundant. The Nutcracker is originally a tale, true, and some of the text was taken directly out of the Hoffmann story. But in ballet the music and dance are meant to tell the story without any need for speech. Tchaikovsky’s score so beautifully shapes the action of the party scene, and while all that talking might have made the story slightly more accessible to audience members unused to ballet, for a purest like me it only distracted from any dancing that was going on. I don’t know if narration was part of Ruth Page’s original Nutcracker ballet or added later, but this version could be improved by taking it out.
Fifty years after its premiere, there are now dozens Nutcrackers to chose from in Chicago. Ruth Page Civic Ballet is no longer a full-time company, and its roster is composed of students and freelance dancers on short-term contracts. In a way, that is what makes this production awesome: seeing modern dancers in pointe shoes, members of rival companies on stage together, and phenomenal performances from unexpected and not-often-seen dancers performing to a completely packed house. That, more than anything else, makes me want to see this production last another 50 years.
Ruth Page Civic Ballet presents The Nutcracker Sunday, Dec. 13 at 3 and 6pm at the Ravinia Festival (200 Ravinia Park Rd., Highland Park). Tickets are $10 reserved seating, on sale at www.ruthpage.org.