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The Nutcracker: Ballet’s Food FantasyJanuary 12, 2017
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What delicious irony– that the most popular ballet production of all time includes a whole act devoted to food! And not just any food—we’re talking DANCING FOOD! This month some of the most fit and athletic people on the planet are dancing roles as sugary, fatty, indulgent sweets and treats in the perennial holiday classic The Nutcracker. Yet the ballet was a total flop at its Russian premiere in 1892. So why is The Nutcracker so popular today? Here’s the skinny on ballet’s addictive sweet tooth…
Originally designed as an entertaining after piece of fairy-tale magic to Tchaikovsky’s opera about a blind princess (Iolanta), The Nutcracker tells the story of a Christmas party at which the daughter of the house (Clara, or sometimes Marie) receives a Nutcracker doll from her mysterious godfather (Herr Drosselmeyer). Later that night, when Clara goes to check on her Nutcracker, the tree starts growing until all the toys beneath it are life-size. In a battle between the toy soldiers and mice, her beloved Nutcracker fights off the horrid Mouse King. Just as he is about to be overwhelmed, Clara saves the Nutcracker by throwing her shoe at the Mouse King to vanquish him.
The Nutcracker is then transformed into a handsome young prince who leads her through the Land of Snow to the Land of Sweets (home of the Sugar Plum Fairy) where dancers representing various nationalities of food and drink perform in her honor. They include:
Marzipan (also “Mirlitons,” or Dance of the Reed Flutes)
Candy Canes (also “Trepak,” or Russian Dance)
Mother Ginger and Bon-bons
The Waltz of the Flowers (originally the flowers were sweetmeats!)
The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy
The end of the story typically depicts Clara waking up next to her Nutcracker doll to discover it was all a dream. But oh my what a dream! Mystery, magic, violence, romance, glitter, pretty ladies, and dancing food… What more could anyone ask for???
Well, apparently The Nutcracker left a bad taste in the mouths of contemporary critics. Not only did they declare this theatrical dessert “an insult” that spelled “death for the company”, but they also panned the Sugar Plum Fairy as “podgy”! With such a sour reputation the ballet soon fell from the repertory, and for the next 50 years, it was very rarely performed.
So how did The Nutcracker gain the iconic holiday status it enjoys today?
WORLD WAR II, TELEVISION, AND NOSTALGIC LONGING
San Francisco Ballet performed the first complete Nutcracker in the U. S. on December 24, 1944. It was such a success that the company presented the production every subsequent Christmas Eve and throughout the winter season. Given the painful realities and hardships of World War II, Americans were ripe to enjoy the story of a warm and cozy Christmas in which the blight of violence and chaos is handily defeated to reveal a world of enchantment and gustiary abundance–even if it is just an innocent dream. By the time New York City Ballet began its annual stagings of George Balanchine’s version in 1954, The Nutcracker fit well into the 1950’s advertising paradigm of a picture perfect home and family.
But it was CBS television’s Christmas night broadcasts of Balanchine’s version in 1957 and 1958 that brought The Nutcracker into the homes and hearts of millions. For many viewers, The Nutcracker was their first exposure to ballet. The television production included narrations to guide viewers about what to look for, while close camera angles brought them right into a family celebration that mirrored 1950’s ideals of home, family, and demur, perfectly coiffed women. Throughout the 1960’s, annual productions of The Nutcracker sprang up across America. It’s U.S. popularity transformed this once obscure work of Christmas nostalgia into a ballet icon, causing the work to spread back to Europe and beyond, making it the worldwide ballet phenomenon we know today.
Despite its sugary sweetness, The Nutcracker has become the fiscal “bread and butter” of ballet companies, accounting for some 40% of annual revenue. Nutcracker performances abound each year, presented by amateur ballet schools and world class professional ballet companies alike. These days you’re also likely to find a Nutcracker to suit just about any taste–light, dark, romantic, comic, twisted, straight, fluffy, traditional, or total spoof.
Because it’s the single most performed work for most ballet dancers, we especially love doing spoof versions! In my day, as a treat for the dancers and audience, Houston Ballet would stage a “Nutty Nutcracker” towards the end of our 42 show run each year. The dancers got so into putting together this version that it totally reinvigorated our spirits (and bodies!) at the end of such a long performance haul. Each year saw new spoofs–snowflakes became big clumsy men, the Clintons hosted the Christmas party, Michael Jackson got everyone into the groove, the Black Swan came to take over the Land of Sweets–the list goes on and on… such fun times!
But because we do so many performances of it in our careers, many dancers have less affection for The Nutcracker. Most would be glad not to hear Tchaikovsky’s lovely score the entire rest of the year (or even lives!). Each year has plenty of eye rolling and audible “ughs!” at the start of Nutcracker rehearsals.
I’m not one of these Nutcracker naysayers… Yes, I’m a total ballet nerd, but I still LOVE The Nutcracker! So here’s a little playlist of my Nutcracker faves to get you in the spirit. They are the ebullient Waltz of the Flowers, the majestic and intense Snow Scene, and the luminous grandeur of the Grand (Sugar Plum Fairy) Pas de deux.
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