“…Regardless of how we feel about this classic storybook ballet today, there was a time that we all were drawn to it.”
NUTCRACKER. For a dancer, this one word can ignite such a variety of feelings. Anxiety, exhaustion, pain…to name a few. Small company or large, contracted dancer or freelance artist, Nutcracker is widely known as moneymaking season. Other projects come to a halt and ballerinas and modern dancers alike prepare themselves for weeks on end of Tchaikovsky, pointe shoes, tulle, and chaos. I am part of a small percentage of grown dancers that love Nutcracker. At the age of 26, I know there are not many that share the feeling. I would find more camaraderie of opinion amongst the casts of mice and party children that perform in this ballet, honestly. But regardless of how we feel about this classic storybook ballet today, there was a time that we all were drawn to it. And though our stage smiles may be hiding the pain and stress of the season, you cannot deny that Nutcracker is a ballet that unites.
Although Nutcracker is a holiday classic now, it was far from that upon its inception in 1892. Petipa and Ivanov’s adaptation of E.T.A. Hoffman’s classic story did not appeal to the masses initially. The inclusion of so many child dancers, the wait through nearly three quarters of the ballet for the introduction of the prima ballerina, and the harsh contrast between the real world first act segment and the fantasy world segment of act two did not sit well. However, the music stuck immediately. After countless tweaks and adaptations by companies nationally, by the 1960s it had become a Christmas tradition. It was an easy way for the general public to “access” ballet and simultaneously celebrate the holiday season. Today it continues to hold its place as a beloved Christmas experience. It is a wonderful stepping stone to the dance world – a common and acceptable first viewing experience for non-dance audiences.
“For some of us, [Nutcracker] is the pivotal moment when we realized we wanted to dance.”
Nutcracker is known as a timeless and magical holiday tradition to the masses, but behind the scenes, dancers are responsible for the countless repetition of the ballet. Companies big and small, and ballet schools and academies as well, know the value of the Nutcracker. It is the prime ticket-selling time of year. Regardless of ticket sales year round, companies everywhere recognize the opportunity they have to fill a theater with young, eager children, with visions of sugar plums dancing in their heads. It’s also prime time to sell merchandise, solicit donations, spread the word, and offer special backstage access for an extra ticket price. With good marketing and strategy, the Nutcracker season can be an extremely profitable time for a company of any size.
However, the promise that this ballet holds comes with a price to its dancers. The massive opportunity sometimes stretches people far beyond their limits. Smaller regional companies who seek to reap the rewards, must require their dancers to perform a variety of challenging roles for countless performances on end, sometimes also traveling to other locales to perform. The aches and pains of Nutcracker season are common holiday banter amongst the dancer crowd. It’s a blessing and a curse. The best we can do is load up on Emergen-C, painkillers, ice, and pairs of pointe shoes.
Despite the chaos, I shyly admit that I love Nutcracker. The beautiful music and familiar dances are comforting and festive year after year. Despite the agony of repetition (and having to hear the tunes far in advance), the melodies remind us that the holiday season is approaching. A time for family, friends, and love. And I’m sure many of us are also reminded of the first time we saw this beloved holiday show. For some of us, it is the pivotal moment when we realized we wanted to dance. I myself am not sure of my first theater visit to the Nutcracker, but I am reminded of time spent in my childhood kitchen dancing to Nutcracker on cassette with my Mom (experience complete with hot pink legwarmers and a sparkly tutu). In that kitchen, my love of dancing began. When I take the stage, I only hope that I can help others discover the same magic I did, a magic that can be used to fuel their hopes and dreams.