Covid-19 has cost us cherished holiday traditions. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns against traveling for family visits. Santas and menorahs sit behind plastic partitions. Religious services have moved outside. The National Christmas Tree Lighting went online.
And for many Americans, particularly painful is the absence of live performances of “The Nutcracker.”
But the story of “The Nutcracker” in America is a story of innovation. And the same creative spirit that will help Americans re-create at least a little of this treasured ritual can help revitalize the ballet for generations to come.
“The Nutcracker” was not always beloved, nor was it always associated with
the holiday season. When it premiered in
Russia in 1892, hopes were high for a ballet
created by the same team—composer
Peter Tchaikovsky and choreographer
Marius Petipa, this time with the aid
of his assistant Lev Ivanov—that had so
successfully ushered “Sleeping Beauty” to
the stage two years earlier.
But Tchaikovsky thought the new ballet was “infinitely worse” than “Sleeping
Beauty,” and the critical and audience
reception was lukewarm. “The Nutcracker” was only sporadically revived over the next few decades.
Some Americans had a chance to see a condensed version staged by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in the 1940s on the company’s many cross-country tours, and Disney’s “Fantasia” helped popularize the music. But it wasn’t until 1944 that the San Francisco Ballet performed the first full-length “Nutcracker” in the United States.
It took another decade for George Balanchine’s wildly popular 1954 New York City Ballet production of “The Nutcracker,” with its magically growing Christmas tree, to link the show inextricably to Christmas. In December 1957 and 1958, CBS broadcast the New York City Ballet’s live “Nutcracker” performances, cementing its status as a holiday perennial.
Though not everyone uses Balanchine’s choreography, even unique productions such as the Washington Ballet’s “Nutcracker”—with its Georgetown setting, cherry blossoms and Miss Liberty character—are set during the Christmas season. Dance studios everywhere make local productions a December ritual, and American ballet companies typically bring in almost half of their annual revenue from “Nutcracker” performances and other holiday shows.
One of the most appealing features of “The Nutcracker” for Americans is the very thing that the original Russian audience rejected: lots of children onstage. Nineteenth-century Russians wanted to see professionals at the height of their craft, but 20th-century Americans immersed in the child-centered culture of the baby boom and beyond were at least as interested in cuteness as in virtuosity. Most American productions follow Balanchine’s lead in casting children as Marie (Clara, in some versions); her pesky brother, Fritz; and the Nutcracker Prince, as well as dozens of other roles.
This charming tradition is a business opportunity, too: Larger studios and companies often double-cast the roles, both in case something happens to their young performers and to increase the number of relatives, friends and neighbors who want to see their little darlings onstage. Companies hope “Nutcracker” audiences will attend other performances, while
ballet schools count on dazzled children enrolling in class themselves.
The ballet’s popularity has not
exempted it from critique—instead, it
has prompted productive soul-searching. Dance critics worry that over-reliance
on familiar ballets such as “The Nutcracker”
encourages conservative programming. Professional dancers weary of performing the
same show as many as 50 times a year.
The saccharine nature of the music and
basic story line has also prompted radical revampings.
This year, communities may not be able to coalesce around local productions of “The Nutcracker.” Families may not be able to introduce wide-eyed children to the magic of live theater and dance. But productions large and small have come up with some creative solutions.
Companies such as Washington Ballet, Pennsylvania Ballet and San Francisco Ballet are offering online performances, some with interactive components such as storytelling and backstage tours, and all with more affordable ticket prices and close-up camera angles, making this tradition newly accessible in more ways than one. Movement Headquarters Ballet, a start-up company in New York, is developing an original production featuring not only new choreography but also—more radically—an entirely new score.
The Nutcracker Prince and Sugar Plum Fairy can still enchant us, even if their magic is mediated through a computer or television screen. We can bring “The Nutcracker” home and dream of a sweeter, safer 2021.
Melissa Klapper is a professor at Rowan University and author of “Ballet Class: An American History.”
Print Headline: Ballet goes on, even now