Choreography: Lev Ivanov/Marius Petipa
Debut: Maryinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg 1892
It’s that time of year again: the season when men, women and children everywhere assume an air of ballet knowledge and flock to see The Nutcracker. Suddenly and briefly, ballet is in the popular culture spotlight. Weary shoppers listen to The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy while waiting in line at Macy’s and imagine a sparkling ballerina in a pink tutu spinning around on her toes, and believe that what they are envisioning is entirely representative of ballet. It’s like the World Cup phenomenon in the US, when masses of usually oblivious Americans muster up some serious soccer enthusiasm and act like it’s not a fleeting interest. Or the tradition of singing Auld Lang Syne on New Year’s Eve with abandon despite most people having no idea what those words mean.
Washington Post dance critic Sarah Kaufman once wrote, “That warm and welcoming veneer of domestic bliss in The Nutcracker gives the appearance that all is just plummy in the ballet world. But ballet is beset by serious ailments that threaten its future in this country… companies are so cautious in their programming that they have effectively reduced an art form to a rotation of over-roasted chestnuts that no one can justifiably croon about… The tyranny of The Nutcracker is emblematic of how dull and risk-averse American ballet has become. … Has ballet become so entwined with its “Nutcracker” image, so fearfully wedded to unthreatening offerings, that it has forgotten how eye-opening and ultimately nourishing creative destruction can be?”
If I sound as cynical as Ms. Kaufman, which I know I do, it’s not my fault. When you grow up dancing, you treasure the annual excitement of putting on The Nutcracker. You start at age 7 skipping out of Mother Goose’s massive hoop skirt and top out ten years later as the lead in Waltz of the Flowers, the crowning moment of your short-lived dance career before the dance team college culture engulfs you. Your feelings toward The Nutcracker are forever after bittersweet. You dread hearing those over-played opening notes but end up performing in the grocery store the steps, emblazoned on your memory, despite yourself. You loathe the inevitable well-intended comment from acquaintances who, knowing you “do ballet,” are so proud to tell you that they’ve just seen The Nutcracker, and yet, when the Bolshoi broadcasts its latest production to a movie theatre near you, you go to see it.
The Bolshoi’s broadcast version had the usual highlights and pitfalls. Act One, Scene One employed adult dancers (not children) to perform the roles of the young party guests. Though this made for a comparatively dance-filled scene that moved along at a nice pace, I still found myself wishing it over with so we could get to the real dancing. Interestingly, the Nutcracker doll itself was played by a live dancer and Drosselmeyer’s role was uncharacteristically and happily dance-heavy. The interpretation of the dances from around the world, particularly that of the Chinese dance, were embarrassingly condescending. The lead roles, however, were danced very nicely and did justice to Tchaikovsky’s gorgeous music in The Waltz of the Flowers and the Grand Pas de Deux.
Though unsuccessful in its 1892 debut, The Nutcracker endured and has become one of the most popular ballets, especially in the US, where popular culture undervalues dance in general. Today the ballet is performed by large and local companies across the country as part of a beloved – and lucrative – holiday tradition.
The plot is, no doubt, familiar. A young girl receives a doll from her spooky uncle at the Christmas party in her home, falls asleep by the Christmas tree and awakens to a battle between giant mice, led by the Rat King, and toy soldiers, led by her Nutcracker doll. The girl helps the doll win the battle by throwing her shoe at the Rat King. The doll turns into a handsome prince and takes the girl away to a magical winter wonderland. Snowflakes dance. The couple then travels to a land of sweets, where confections from various parts of the world dance for them. Finally, the girl wakes up in her living room, discovering it was all a wonderful dream.
Each company tweaks the plot and interpretation a bit – some more than others. In some productions, Clara/Marie dances the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy. In others Clara/Marie does not wake from a dream at the end and, instead, goes off with the prince as in a fairy tale. In Washington, DC, Septime Webre’s interpretation for the Washington Ballet has become iconic in its own right. “Set in Washington, DC and filled with hints of Americana, this production features the heroic George Washington as the Nutcracker, King George III as the Rat King and cherry blossoms dancing on the Potomac (www.washingtonballet.org).” My husband just saw this production, his first Nutcracker (excluding my numerous childhood videotapes to which I subjected him upon our engagement) and enjoyed it.
Some call it pure nostalgia, others a triumph of good over evil. Still others, myself included, think of The Nutcracker as a coming-of-age story: a tale of sexual awakening in which a young girl on the verge of puberty imagines a handsome prince who takes her away from her home to a faraway land. All in all, it’s a charming but relatively shallow ballet, with a few stunning highlights among a lot of milling about. Nonetheless, I continue to both avoid and crave its ubiquitous presence at this time of year.