Arts and Culture

The Nutcracker Reconsidered

I once saw it as ballet's answer to fruitcake. But this year, something cracked. Do you agree?

By Shannon Rupp 7 Dec 2012 | TheTyee.ca

Shannon Rupp is a contributing editor of The Tyee. Read her previous articles here.

While many of us dread the first strains of Jingle Bell Rock in the malls, my left eye actually begins to twitch at that plink-plink-plink of a cascading harp that signals Nutcracker flowers will soon be waltzing across stages everywhere.

The tic is a holdover from decades spent as a dance critic when I could be guaranteed to see at least two Nutcrackers a year in addition to the many other traumas of Christmas.

But this year I'm feeling an inexplicable nostalgia for a show I long viewed as ballet's answer to fruitcake -- one of those Christmas traditions we want someone else to enjoy.

For the first time in years, the sound of Tchaikovsky's big oom-pah score didn't trigger symptoms that made sales clerks ask, in carefully modulated tones, if I'm feeling alright.

Oh, don't judge me. If you've never walked a mile in a satin shoe, you couldn't imagine how rare it is to find anyone in the dance world who doesn't have what might generously be called a love-hate relationship with the Sugar Plum Fairy. While she's the source of as much as a third of the annual income for classical ballet companies, few artists (and fewer dance critics) welcome the Christmas classic.

Perhaps the loathing so many of us feel for the Nutcracker is best summed up by the nickname bestowed on it by an arts publicist I knew.

"Did you get the Ballbreaker kit I sent?" Leanne yelled at me across a packed lobby one evening, causing every man in earshot to snap to attention.

I waved a thumbs-up (further unnerving them). But I was despairing over that very press kit, as I went through the annual ritual of trying to find something new to say about candy en pointe. In the two decades I spent writing about dance, I'd picked the bones clean on this bird. I'd covered the auditions where they hire local dance students to fill out the cast. I'd previewed new productions by new choreographers. I'd dragged children to the theatre and recorded their take on the show.

I'd even discussed the foreign angle. Europeans have never embraced those sashaying snowflakes the way North Americans did, probably for the same reason the continental pagans resisted the worst excesses of the Christmas Industrial Machine.

Freudians, of course, have a field day with the Nutcracker story. Clara, on the cusp of adolescence, has a dream in which she falls in love with a man made of wood. Then, apropos of nothing in particular, that Christmas tree grows to huge proportions. And I don’t like to think about the implications of a giant mouse king. But I decided against doing a feature on the psychological reading after I caught a production with a social worker friend.

"You just know old Drosselmeier is up to no good," she whispered, as the dancer playing Clara's "uncle" pulled one of a passel of children onto his lap. At intermission she commented on how the ballet gave her the urge to "organize an intervention."

Desperate I may have been for an angle, but I decided to pass on that one.

Ballet bauble?

Still one part of the Nutcracker always fascinated me: how the ballet went from being a pretty but insignificant bauble of a show to one that is keeping so many classical companies on the boards.

Surprisingly, when the Nutcracker premiered in Tsarist Russia in 1892, it tanked. E.T.A. Hoffmann's dark and convoluted 1816 story didn't make much sense and while the ballet was taken out of mothballs from time to time, it didn't find an audience for more than 50 years.

It wasn't until George Balanchine debuted his version of the Nutcracker in 1954, at the recently formed New York City Ballet, that it became an instant Christmas tradition. Balanchine was a great showman, and he cleaned up the crazy story of the Nutcracker and the Mouse King and turned it into a magical coming-of-age tale about an adolescent girl and a cash cow.

I thought it was telling that when a previous incarnation of Ballet B.C. was beginning to struggle against a sea of debt, the first lifesaver they grabbed was the one tossed by the Sugar Plum Fairy. Although artistic director John Alleyne's antipathy to traditional fare was legendary -- he had once vowed he would never take his contemporary classical company to the Land o' Sweets -- they joined forces with Alberta Ballet to launched a co-production.

But even then, in 2000, it was already a fairy-eat-fairy world. The two companies told me they were angling to shutout the West's touring juggernaut, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, which often made off with the local Christmas box office. They, in turn, were maneuvering for the Anchorage contract held by Utah’s Ballet West -- the ambitious company featured in last summer's reality TV show, Breaking Pointe. Although I see that this year, the Cincinnati Ballet has snagged the Alaska gig.

Apparently, there's no end to the supply of velvet-clad eight-year-olds demanding a glimpse of that goose laying that golden egg. Today Canada's Nutcracker landscape is even more crowded, with about two dozen pro and semi-professional troupes of all sizes getting in on the act.

Performing on the National Arts Centre stage is such a plum that the NAC rotates the Nutcrackers of Canada's biggest companies -- the RWB, the National Ballet of Canada, Montreal's Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, and Alberta Ballet -- to prevent the sort of ill-will that leads to national unity crises.

This nut's convinced

As a critic I dreaded the annual bon-bon, which was outside the scope of reviewing -- saying anything remotely critical was akin to kicking Tiny Tim's crutch out from under him. I understood that the Nutcracker is to ballet what Christmas is to retailers -- the one thing between them and Armageddon -- and that there would be no roasting of that golden goose, no matter how tempting.

So despite being a lifelong dance fan, I just did not understand the curious enthusiasm for the Nutcracker. Until this year.

In her 2003 book, Nutcracker Nation, the historian Jennifer Fisher takes a stab at explaining North America's love affair with the ballet. She suggests that it endures because it is less an entertainment than a ritual. We attend Swan Lake for the spectacular dance, but we go to the Nutcracker for the warmth of a community celebration.

"Like birthdays and weddings, the annual ballet is both dreaded and celebrated because it marks the passage of time," Fisher writes.

I think she might be right. The Nutcracker is too tame for the tastes of most critics, who often want to be surprised. But it is undeniably beautiful. And attending it is as reassuring a habit as decorating a tree or festooning your house with enough lights to get you mistaken for an alternate landing strip.

Which is probably why a few years of a Nutcracker-free existence has left me feeling the insistent tug of nostalgia.

So if you haven't seen the Nutcracker performed live in a theatre I urge you to go. Don’t listen to those cranky critics who snub it as an art too popular to be significant: it's really one of the great enduring Christmas rituals of our community and it's not to be missed.

There's no shortage of Nutcrackers danced by both professional and semi-professional companies all over B.C. In Vancouver the Royal Winnipeg Ballet is bringing its spectacular Canadian flavoured version, which includes a hockey scene, Dec. 14 to 16. Or you can catch the Goh Ballet's semi-professional show, Dec. 19 to 23, featuring principal dancers from the New York City Ballet along with the dancers from the school's professional program.

The Kelowna Ballet performs the Nutcracker Dec. 7 and 8, and in Vernon Dec. 14 and 15. Dance Victoria does a version Nov. 30 to Dec 2. The Royal City Youth Ballet, a semi-professional company, tours the Lower Mainland throughout December, with a stop in Duncan.

How do you feel about the Nutcracker ballet? All it's cracked up to be, or just drives you nuts? Comment here, please!  [Tyee]

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