How The Nutcracker became, and continues to be, our favorite holiday show.
Pick anyone off the street and ask them if they’ve heard of The Nutcracker (or don’t if you’re, like, really uncomfortable talking to strangers). Chances are, they have heard of The Nutcracker. In fact, The Nutcracker might even be the only ballet they recognize (but here’s a shout out to Natalie Portman (and Sarah Lane, her dance double) for bringing Swan-Lake-sexy back). How is it that everyone possesses some vague knowledge of an old ballet based on an obscure German fairytale?
The Nutcracker is a sweeter two-act adaptation of a mildly frightening German story, interpreted by a French choreographer, with a Russian composer and ballet company, but an Italian conductor and Sugar Plum Fairy. The premiere was given by the Mariinsky Theatre of St Petersburg on December 18, 1892 (exactly 123 years ago!). The Nutcracker (much like British TV shows) didn’t make it to the United States until much later: On Christmas Eve 1944, the San Francisco Ballet staged the nation’s first full production of our now beloved ballet. And then we never looked back! Companies around the world may perform The Nutcracker any old time of year, but the US made the show a true winter tradition, our perennial crowd-pleaser.
It may surprise you to learn that the 1892 theater-goers glanced around after opening night and released a collective, “Mehh.” (Except in Russian, obviously.) What was at first a box office flop in Imperial Russia became everyone’s bread and butter production: The Nutcracker single-handedly generates over half of annual ticket sales for American ballet companies. It brings people to the theater! And so we put it on every year, without fail. Does it get old? Yes! Do we flinch when we hear Nutcracker music playing in the background of some place we thought was safe (say, an otherwise peaceful department store days before Thanksgiving)? Absolutely! (WHY WAS H&M PLAYING THE RUSSIAN VARIATION BEFORE DECEMBER LIKE WHAT PANDORA STATION IS THAT EVEN.) I’m joking, of course. But the show is performed with a regularity as befuddling as fruitcake. At some point you pause and ask, “Why?” Why fruitcake? Why The Nutcracker?
For all its popularity, dancers (and friends and family who were forced to witness WHO KNOWS how many cracked nuts) often dismiss The Nutcracker as an overrated, inferior part of classical ballet repertoire. We’ve all been there! But whether it’s your first or your twenty-first time catching or dancing The Nutcracker, try to remember its rich cultural history. Remember how it’s founded on efforts of incredibly international collaboration. Remember how glorious the Grand Pas de Deux sounded the first time you froze listening to it, how catchy the Nutcracker Suite actually is, how easy it is to follow the story and enjoy Tchaikovsky. Remember how bizarre it would be to not do The Nutcracker (the one year I said I’d skive, I cracked and ended up doing two!). Remember how it involves (as a cast member) and invites (as an audience member) both children and adults. Remember that it brings people together. Remember that the story belongs to the world. We love this story because it is everyone’s story.
I can’t say the same about fruitcake. I really have no idea what fruitcake’s about.
What’s The Nutcracker about? The most wonderful time of year! It’s Christmas Eve at the magnificently festive Stahlbaum house, all dancing, drinking, and making merry. Drosselmeyer (an odd combination of toymaker, clockmaker, councilman, magician, and godfather) appears and presents elaborate, lifelike dolls to dance for the delight of all. He then introduces a simple nutcracker. While Fritz (being a young boy lacking appreciation for the finer things in life, such as a strangely functional gift, that is SO German) doesn’t initially see what all the fuss is about, he does notice when Clara (or Marie/Maria/Masha) takes a liking to it. He promptly breaks the treasured toy, as younger brothers do. Clara cries. Drosselmeyer fixes it (probably by murmuring a Harry-Potter-worthy “Reparo!”) and places him under the tree, and the party continues. Guests go home, lights go out. Clara sneaks back to the tree to check up on her little friend. She may or may not have fallen asleep by the time the clock strikes midnight. That’s when things get weird.
The Christmas tree grows to dizzying heights as our heroine shrinks and finds herself in the middle of a battle. The Nutcracker leading his toy soldiers against mice and their Mouse King (who has seven heads in the original, which you’d know if you were real hip and read the book before the ballet). Just when it seems like evil will prevail, Clara does what any girl in her shoes would do: Takes off a slipper and smacks s giant mouse in the face, giving our guy enough time to run his blade through the beast. Mice scatter, dust settles, and the nutcracker turns into a prince who whisks his newfound, kick-butt girlfriend through a winter wonderland back to his place. Intermission.
The Land of the Sweets! Don’t overthink this one. The Nutcracker Prince does this instant replay story highlighting Clara’s quick thinking, everyone loves her, then the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier arrange for a celebration of dancing sweets from around the world: Spanish chocolate, Arabian coffee, Chinese tea, Russian candy canes, Danish shepherdesses with mirlitons (a flute/musical instrument, though sometimes modified to marzipan to maintain the candy theme), Mother Ginger with her polichinelles (little clowns, though often changed to lemon drops or bon-bons because, again, candy), a waltz of flowers, and finally the sugar plums themselves. It’s a ball, all around.
How did we go from a pretty realistic (if dated) holiday party/sibling squabble to this wildly diverse finish? Spectators have always found the transition from the first act’s mundanity to the second act’s fantasy a bit abrupt, so ballet companies today try to make it make more sense. If you watch the San Diego Ballet’sNutcracker closely, you catch little clues from the beginning. Drosselmeyer’s miniature dancing dolls in the very first scene match the Spanish, Arabian, Russian, or Chinese dances found in later scenes in the Land of Sweets. Don’t let the normalcy of the party scene fool you! Keep your eyes peeled for nutty hints of future adventure.
Maybe Drosselmeyer pulls strings like a magical master puppeteer to orchestrate the whole thing, and maybe Clara just had one too many chocolates before falling into a sugar-induced night terror. Enjoy tasting an assortment of cultures and see the world without ever leaving San Diego. Take the family, and have fun!