Editor’s note: This story has updated to add mention of the Music Institute of Chicago’s role.

John Schmitz of Dance Chicago directed this year’s “Duke It Out!” Nutcracker performance featuring dances to Ellington/Strayhorn and Tchaikovsky melodies. The sold-out show, presented by the Music Institute of Chicago, took the stage at Nichols Concert Hall on Saturday afternoon, Dec. 10. 

The performance was curated by Altin Naska, certainly the hardest-working person on stage. He danced and walked on to the stage every dance segment in the role of Dr. Drosselmeyer, as well as provided choreography or artistic direction for half of the 16 dance segments. 

Stars of the “‘Duke It Out!’ Nutcracker” pose in the lobby after the show: Tristan Bruns as the Mouse King, Rebecca Taylor as Clara and Case Prime as the Nutcracker. Credit: Wendi Kromash

But the stars of the show were the children and young adults who had practiced long hours for their time in the limelight. These young dancers were skilled, enthusiastic, poised and beautifully outfitted. If they were nervous, they did not show it. Their smiles could have been advertisements for toothpaste commercials – big, bright and earnest. 

The entire performance was about 60 minutes in length, allowing the vast majority of their younger and fidgety siblings to make it through the show properly entertained.  

The dancers were from private dance companies based in Chicago and the suburbs of Naperville, Plainfield, Libertyville and Elburn. They were accompanied by members of the Music Institute of Chicago ensemble-in-residence Quintet Attacca and the Braeburn Brass, a quintet, with assistance from drummer Christian Moreno and cellist Doris Nagel. 

The athleticism of the “Arabian Dance” at the “‘Duke It Out!’ Nutcracker.” Credit: Thomas Bock

The audience did not need to know the story of The Nutcracker in order to enjoy the performances. The music alternated between classical ballet and Tchaikovsky melodies with the jazzy swagger of Ellington/Strayhorn tunes and tap dancing or modern ballet. The changes kept things lively. 

An overture with Ellington/Strayhorn introduced a comical dance number between the Mouse King (Tristan Bruns) and the Nutcracker (Case Prime). 

Julio Alexander and Rebecca Taylor in the “Arabian Dance” at the “‘Duke It Out!’ Nutcracker.” Credit: Thomas Bock

Rebecca Taylor as Clara was outstanding, in particular during the Arabian Dance. She was partnered with Julio Alexander and ably assisted by Charlotte Luhn and Advika Prasad. Later she shone as the Sugar Plum Fairy and in the grand pas de deux, the latter with Colin Pilotto. She danced to Tchaikovsky melodies. 

Sophia de Leon Sanchez mesmerizes the audience at the “‘Duke It Out!’ Nutcracker.” Credit: Thomas Bock

Arabesque Cookie, danced to a Ellington/Strayhorn composition, was the most “grown up” of the dances and easily the sexiest few minutes on stage. It was a palate cleanser after so much sugar. Sophia de Leon Sanchez crushed her dance and was one of the highlights of the afternoon. So controlled and focused, her gaze forced you to look at her.

The “Duke It Out!” Nutcracker event has been taking place annually in Evanston since 2012.

Wendi Kromash

Wendi Kromash is curious about everything and will write about anything. She tends to focus on one-on-one interviews with community leaders, recaps and reviews of cultural events, feature stories about...

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