Is This the Most Graceful Urban Planning History Lesson Ever?

Chicago's Joffrey Ballet re-worked a winter classic, making connections to a famous episode of Chicago's past that continues to shape its present.

The set of the Joffrey Ballet's 2018 edition of “The Nutcracker” was reworked to reflect the grounds of the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago. (Credit: Joffrey Ballet)

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“The Nutcracker” is a wintertime classic that has helped define the Christmas season for generations. The ballet, set in a little girl’s Christmas Eve dreams, has been a centerpiece of dance in America since George Balanchine, the most renowned choreographer of the twentieth century, staged his own televised version in the 1950s.

In Chicago, the Joffrey Ballet wants to prove that ingenuity can improve on tradition with a ballet that evokes a landmark occasion in the history of city planning.

This month, Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet will present their third consecutive annual version of “The Nutcracker,” this time placing the story inside the 1893 Columbian Exposition, also known as the World’s Fair. The curtain will rise in Chicago’s Auditorium Theatre on a set depicting an exposition building site in December 1892. The show then depicts immigrant construction workers at a modest Christmas party — a far cry from the traditional setting of an opulent upper-class home. It revises protagonist Marie (sometimes called Clara) from a rich girl dreaming of exotic sweets to the child of an impoverished single mother, dreaming of a visit to the multicultural exhibits at the upcoming exposition.

Part of the idea is to capture the childlike wonder that the real exposition evoked. “The World’s Fair was a truly magical turning point for this city,” Joffrey Ballet Artistic Director Ashley Wheater explained in the 2017 documentary, “Making a New American Nutcracker.”

“It was a kind of dream place,” Wheater added.

The adaptations make more connections to the surrounding city, especially this one: Drosselmeyer, the magician central to the traditional first act, gets reworked as the “Great Impresario,” a new character based on the real architect and city planner Daniel Burnham.

Among the most prominent architects of the nineteenth century, Burnham played a leading role in the 1893 Columbian Exposition. The event was largely intended as a declaration of Chicago’s regeneration after the devastating fire of 1871. Burnham engaged five architects from the East Coast and five from “the West” (as the Midwest was then known) in the construction of nearly 100 temporary buildings on 600 acres on Chicago’s South Side.

The architecture was not a critical success, but the event itself induced massive changes in Chicago. The grand buildings that the Art Institute of Chicago and Museum of Science and Industry occupy today were both initially constructed as buildings for the fair. It also brought about the expansion of Chicago’s L train with stations that are still standing today. According to Chicago Architectural Foundation Tour Director Kathleen Carpenter, who presents tours and events about the fair, “The prominence of Chicago was raised enormously,” and worldwide media attention shifted perceptions of Chicago from “a stockyard” to “a city to contend with.”

Most importantly, it served as a kind of three-dimensional blueprint for what Burnham would do next. “The planning lessons that Burnham and others learned from the Columbian Exposition had a direct impact on the planning that he was called on to do by the Commercial Club of Chicago for the 1909 Plan of Chicago,” says Paulina Saliga, executive director of the Society for Architectural Historians, a Chicago-based nonprofit.

The 1909 Plan of Chicago set forth a new design of the entire city, encompassing everything from the placement of public parks to streets laid in systematic grids to the unusual design of Wacker Drive, a multilevel downtown street that has since prompted accolades like “whispered wonder.” Endowed with a permanent commission in 1909, the Plan of Chicago informed the city’s development until the Great Depression. Not all of it was realized (Saliga notes that city hall never did move to the location Burnham designated), but the plan succeeded in revamping much of Chicago, solidified the “City Beautiful” movement, and prompted several other cities to seek Burnham’s planning skills.

Despite some of the shortcomings of the City Beautiful movement (Jane Jacobs famously leveled her criticisms in the first chapter of “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”), the 1909 plan remains a touchstone for development decisions in Chicago today. Burnham’s advocacy for keeping the lakefront clear for public recreation was a historical precedent underlying the controversial lawsuit that ended George Lucas’ quest to build a museum on the lakefront in 2016. The new citywide parks plan announced this year by Mayor Rahm Emmanuel is entitled “Building on Burham.”

Saliga, a former curator at the Art Institute of Chicago, the museum where many Plan of Chicago drawings are now kept, describes the Plan as “kind of a living document to improve the lives of Chicagoans.”

It would have been impossible without the living proof of concept the fair provided. “[Burnham and his colleagues] took the planning principles that they learned from the experiment that was the Columbian Exposition and they applied them to planning the city and bettering the city,” Saliga says.

“[Burnham’s] education as a big city planner really didn’t happen until he had the opportunity to create this m

assive thing as the World’s Fair,” Carpenter adds.

Both women believe the plan was a big step forward from Burnham’s daily surroundings. “Going to the White City was almost like a dream,” says Saliga, referring to the nickname for the 1893 World’s Fair grounds for the buildings Burnham and his colleagues designed — so, too, is “The Nutcracker” meant to be a vision from a dream.

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M. Sophia Newman is a freelance writer and an editor with a substantial background in global health and health research. She wrote Next City's Health Horizons column from 2015 to 2016 and has reported from Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Kenya, Ghana, South Africa, and the United States on a wide range of topics. See more at​

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Tags: chicagourban planning

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