YOU SEE HIM AROUND a lot this time of year, the nutcracker soldier in a brightly colored, antiquated uniform. Amateur and professional performances of Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker" are a holiday commonplace around the nation, and if you miss your local production, you can still catch PBS's December 24 airing of George Balanchine's choreography for the New York City Ballet. The "Nutcracker" has become a Christmas tradition in the United States--performed more often than any piece of classical music except Handel's "Messiah" and by far the most popular ballet in North America.
The ballet was born in 1892 in St. Petersburg, when choreographer Marius Petipa, with his assistant Lev Ivanov, decided to stage one of E.T.A. Hoffmann's peculiar, proto-Kafkaesque fairy tales, an 1816 story called "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King." Tchaikovsky was asked to compose the score in increments, bar by bar, to accommodate Petipa's structure for the dancing--which is perhaps why early reviews criticized the imbalance of the structure: all story and little dance in the first act, and all dance and little story in the second. Some regarded it more as spectacle than ballet, with a plot that lacked soul, and choreography that lacked the flashy solos its audience had come to expect.
WHAT'S CURIOUS is that the "Nutcracker" was acclaimed in the New World for the same qualities for which it was faulted in the Old: its levity, its emphasis on spectacle, its child dancers, and, especially, its appeal to young audiences. Within a few decades, dancers such as Anna Pavlova were slipping excerpts into their programs while touring. Walt Disney set portions to cartoon flowers, fish, and mushrooms in his 1940 animation "Fantasia," and in 1944 the ballet was mounted in full for the first time in this country by the San Francisco Ballet. In 1954, Balanchine drew upon his childhood memory of the ballet and adopted elements of the original to make his own version for the New York City Ballet, which has been performed every year since.
Where the "Nutcracker" once graced programs of any season, it is now a December exclusive. Yet its theme is not religious. Trees and gifts during winter are associated in Russia with the New Year. The details vary from production to production, but in a nutshell: A tree decorates the stage. A young girl is presented by her uncle with a nutcracker, but her brother covets it, they tussle, and it breaks. Then the family and their guests dance at a house party. The uncle slips in after the guests leave and repairs the nutcracker such that the magic can begin.
At midnight, the tree grows visibly, altering the scale and helping us to imagine the nutcracker's transition from inanimate toy to soldier boy. The nutcracker soldier fights and begins to lose to an aggressive Mouse King. The girl comes to the soldier's aid, whereupon he becomes a prince and whisks her to his Land of Sweets for the second act. The inhabitants and their reigning Sugar Plum Fairy welcome the girl and her prince with a series of dances from other lands. The series climaxes with a grand pas de deux between the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier.
In her new study, "Nutcracker Nation," Jennifer Fisher seeks an explanation for America's love of this Victorian story ballet. Based on interviews with performers, stagers, and audiences, as well as consideration of allusions in literature and on screen, she pronounces the "Nutcracker" high art, accessible enough to become "the people's ballet." Another factor is a plot sufficiently flexible to allow choreographers and communities to "tell a story about themselves" within its recognizable structure. "Hulas were added in Hawaii, cowboys in Arizona, hockey players in Winnipeg, Cajun food in Louisiana."
The sponsoring community or special effects distinguish one performance from another and continue to draw audiences. Take, for example, Balanchine's "Nutcracker" for the New York City Ballet. Even in New York, a dance capital where ballet is highly appreciated, it was the special effect of the Christmas tree rising out of the stage floor from twelve to forty feet that elicited the most mid-performance applause at one of this year's matinees. The young Angels were dressed with stiff, flared, floor-length dresses that hid their feet and made them appear like figurines skimming across the stage. Near the end of her solo, the Arabian dancer of the Coffee variation lay midriff to floor and held one leg up jauntily behind while looking into the audience. The Candy Cane corps danced with their hoops while the principal jumped through his. But it was the Cavalier and Sugar Plum Fairy, when she held an arabesque and he drew her on pointe across the floor or lifted her high above his head, that created the most special of effects.
Fisher celebrates how the "Nutcracker" varies from one region of America to another--which makes it a shame that she imposes some bizarre modern debates upon the different ways the ballet has been presented over the years. How can mushrooms that seem to dance to the Tea variation in Disney's "Fantasia" be considered a "racist portrayal"? Why ask who holds power in a pas de deux, man or woman? This seems the equivalent of asking which string instrument dominates a quartet. And why subject to feminist critique an art codified over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries?
Still, rather than present a biography of a dancer or company fascinating to only a few, or co-opt some theory as a core and illustrate it with dance examples, Fisher's method of using interviews results in a book that may appeal not just to dancers or theorists, but to the public at large.
One of the main determinants of the popularity of the "Nutcracker" in North America seems to be its alliance with Christmas. Like turkey on Thanksgiving or fireworks on Independence Day, "Nutcrackers" for the Christmas season have become what Fisher calls an "invented tradition" or ritual. Any ritual becomes part of the collective memory of the group that observes it; it breaks away from its creators and the time and place of its inception, to claim its own past and a future that is almost assured. This could happen again. Why not ally Coralli and Perrot's haunting ballet "Giselle" with Halloween or Twyla Tharp's "Westerly Round" with Independence Day?
In the meantime, you're doing your part to support ballet when, yet again, you take the children to see the "Nutcracker" this year.
Judith Gelernter is a writer in New York.