Buttcracker burlesque cracks traditional ballet wide openMatt Simonetteon December 1, 2022 at 8:07 pm

Jaq Seifert admits that the title of the holiday show they created, The Buttcracker, came to them while sitting around a campfire in 2015. 

“I was hanging out with some burlesque dancers,” they recall. “I had been working at a burlesque theater for a little bit as a sort of company manager. We were just riffing on some funny names for shows, and I just started talking about The Buttcracker and how funny that would be. We all laughed about it, but I kind of thought, ‘Actually, that could be super fun.’”

The Buttcracker: A Nutcracker BurlesqueThrough 12/31: Thu-Sat 8 PM, Sun 3 PM; also Sat 12/31 9 PM, no performances Sat-Sun 12/24-12/25; Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln, 773-404-7336, thebuttcrackerburlesque.com or greenhousetheater.org, $30-$50 general admission (industry and SRO $20, VIP $75-$100, which includes stageside table, private VIP bar, meet and greet with artists, and show merchandise); NYE $60-$100 general admission, $150-$200 VIP. 18+ (21+ to drink)

This year The Buttcracker: A Nutcracker Burlesque makes its fourth run. Its performances were well-received in years past, but Seifert promises a larger-scale production in 2022—one that even more provocatively ties in the classic holiday story with classic burlesque performance traditions.

A new spin

Seifert says that Tchaikovsky’s original ballet, based on E. T. A. Hoffmann’s 1816 short story “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King,” lent itself to numerous reinterpretations, and adds, “I was thinking about how it could be more for adults, with Clara not being a child anymore. But in terms of how we tell this story, I still wanted it to have a [significant] meaning to it.”

In this version, Clara—markedly comfortable in her body and with her sexuality, Seifert notes—is charged with providing the entertainment at her office Christmas party. 

They add, “Because she’s comfortable with her body and sexuality, she hires Drosselmeyer (Clare Francescon) to come and perform for her coworkers. Her boss gets completely offended—he’s very conservative and very shocked—so he fires Clara. Drosselmeyer feels bad for her. A magic act happens and produces a little nutcracker for her. Inside the nutcracker’s mouth is a drug that eventually takes Clara to the Land of the Sweets.”

The Buttcracker features a wealth of soloists, usually changing with each performance, alongside the regular ensemble. 

“It’s very similar to the regular Nutcracker,” Seifert says. “We have Drosselmeyer being a magician. We have a ‘tragedy’ that happens to Clara . . . Then when she gets to the Land of the Sweets, she gets presented with these gifts of performance, variety, circus, and of course burlesque. At the end, she learns that her penchant for comfort with her body and sexuality are not to be shamed.” 

They promise that the featured soloists are “some of the best in Chicago, in the variety scene. We have fire performers. Some who sit on and walk on glass. Someone this year is coming in to do a bed of nails act. Of course, we have classic burlesque. We have fan dances and regular dance numbers.”

‘Mom and Pop’ no longer

In 2016, when the show debuted and was, in Seifert’s words, a more “DIY”’ production, there was only one performance, simply because they didn’t know how many people were going to show up. 

“I didn’t know if it was going to be popular or not, and it was,” Seifert recalls. “We came back in 2017, with four performances. They sold out again. In 2018, we had five performances. We sold out the majority. [The year] 2019 was our really big year. We moved to the Den—down to four performances, but we had a really big space. We had almost 1,000 people come and see the show in 2019.

“And then, of course, the pandemic happened and, you know, nothing existed for two years.”

Seifert says the production “pulled out all the stops”’ for the show’s 2022 return and that they will no longer be undertaking so many responsibilities. In previous years, they say, “It was a ‘mom and pop’ show, and I played both Mom and Pop.”

The show now features a much more extensive production team: “We’ve hired a scenic designer, lighting designer, costume designer, and a sound designer,” Seifert explains. “We’re at a theater space where we’re in it for a full month, whereas before we were sharing it. . . . This year, I just kind of sat down and said ‘You know, this year, let’s make it, and let’s make it as good as we can.”

Finding newness

This year director Miguel Long, who played Drosselmeyer in 2019, will bring “his own spin” to the show, Seifert says. (Dylan Kerr is the choreographer this year.)

“He has a very intimate knowledge of the show, the process, and the characters,” they say. “That’s one of the great things about this show—it’s written and it’s copyrighted. But because I’m the author and I’m still involved, every year people who come to the show—the designers, the performers—bring their own ideas to the table. Each year is something a little different.”

This year, for example, the Land of the Sweets is a nightclub called The Naughty List, featuring The Buttcrackerʼs various featured performers.

“That was Miguel’s idea,” Seifert explains, noting that Long asked, “‘How do we elevate, and how do we make something different each year to give that newness so it’s not just The Buttcracker each year?’ You can see it in 2019 and see it again in 2022, and it’s almost a completely different show. [But] you’ll still recognize it, of course.”

The racially themed aspects of the original Nutcrackerwere removed; dances instead are focused on gifts given and received throughout the show. 

“Each week you can see different featured soloists perform, and we were able to get a couple different performers who are really big in the burlesque world,” Seifert says. “Audience members could literally come each week and see a different show each time.”

Highlighting the best of Chicago’s burlesque community is indeed of paramount importance for Seifert: “It is such a huge part of this city that people don’t know about, and they don’t know about the history of burlesque in Chicago. I think it’s having a bit of a revolution. The more I can support other artists is really a boon to what I’m trying to do.”

A big break after a long break

Performer Francescon won the role of Drosselmeyer after more than two years of professional inactivity thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I graduated from school and immediately moved up to Chicago, super excited to dance, then the world shut down,” Francescon recalls. “I thought that this would be a good time for a break, and work on myself and work on my mental health. Two and a half years go by, and my roommate comes home and says, ‘Hey, I’m going to this audition. It’s going to be super chill. Next [thing] I know, I’m in the audition and having such a fun time, remembering why I got a dance degree.”

She credits that roommate—who fortunately also was cast in The Buttcracker—with the opportunity to play Drosselmeyer. 

“I get to take this character, who I grew up seeing as an often crotchety old man, and make it whatever gender I want to, express it however I want to, and make it more approachable, to make it a silly, less scary character.”

She loves the opportunity to “mix it up and let a serious ballet be silly.” Her background is in modern dance—“I’m used to rolling around on the stage being seminude,” she says—but presenting sexuality on stage, she admits, is something that took some getting used to. 

“I grew up admiring Twyla Tharp, Alvin Ailey, and Paul Taylor,” she says. “They do have some sexiness to their work, but it’s not the same level of sexiness as a burlesque show. So that’s a challenge—being as sexy as possible while also being silly and entertaining.”

Francescon loves dancing in The Buttcracker since the primary goal is “bringing joy to people. I don’t feel the pressure for people to understand the emotions I’m trying to get across. The only emotion I want people to feel is excitement. . . . As we’ve danced every day for each other [in rehearsals], we’ve been able to add something new or switch something up, making us laugh together. That lets me know that when we get on stage [in performances] everyone is going to love this—it’s hilarious.” 

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