Mixed Nutcrackers

Love It Or Hate It, The Nutcrackeris A Yule Fixture That Floats Many A Ballet Company

As legendary dance critic Richard Buckle observed, December's arrival means we are all "one more Nutcracker closer to death".

Buckle captured the dread with which many balletomanes greet the Christmas ritual. But dance lovers no longer need to feel ashamed of their Nutcracker aversion since, apparently, we're not the only ones who doubt it's dance. According to an American dance historian, the bonbon is less ballet than social event.

Jennifer Fisher, a professor at the University of California, interviewed the denizens of the Land of Sweets, including professional and amateur dancers, as well as devoted audiences, for Nutcracker Nation (Yale University Press, 2003). In her examination of the only ballet to achieve pop-culture status in North America, she found that many fans don't even think of it as ballet--a finding that goes a long way to explain Nutcracker's enduring popularity in an art-resistant culture. So how to explain the last decade's boom in sugar plums? Fisher attributes it to a fast-paced world's longing for a simpler time.

"The people I talked to were usually not concerned with exactly what time period they were longing for," Fisher writes, "but many said the quaint customs and happy families of the Nutcracker party scene, as well as Clara's safe return to the bosom of her family, are good reminders of 'old-fashioned' values that are often lost in the complexity of 'modern life'."

Les Grands Ballets Canadiens did some independent market research last year that echoes Fisher's findings. Alain Dancyger, executive director of the Montreal company, said in a phone interview that they were surprised by what their Nutcracker audiences told them. "Most of the audience doesn't really consider it a ballet, they consider it a holiday tradition--it's the spirit of Christmas. And people use Nutcracker as a way of getting together with friends they haven't seen through the year," he said.

Dancyger added that although the ballet puts 35,000 bums in seats annually, the belief that it builds audiences appears to be a myth. "Most come only for The Nutcracker--they're not interested in discovering more about dance."

Nutcracker has never attracted dance lovers. When it premiered at St. Petersburg's Maryinsky Theatre in 1892, it was panned by critics, who thought Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky's rich score was wasted on the incoherent version of E. T. A. Hoffmann's dark, complicated story. It survived, mostly in the form of Nutcracker highlights staged in mixed programs, until George Balanchine's 1954 restaging for the New York City Ballet gave it new life. Balanchine emphasized the warm family scenes and offered the kind of kitsch much loved in the land of Norman Rockwell. He turned the growing tree, the party scene's gaggle of local children, and the falling snow into the "traditional" version, and an annual event was born.

Other companies saw the advantage of having a piece of the Christmas market, and today many a classical company lives or dies by its Nutcracker revenues. Its cross-continent success is due to its adaptability--Nutcracker can be tailored to reflect any community.

Fisher found amateur versions with Scottish accents in St. John's, Newfoundland, and Alma, Michigan, where the partygoers were kilt-clad and country dancing, in honour of their ancestors. The Royal Winnipeg Ballet's version has a Canadian theme: it's set in its hometown at the turn of the last century and features kids playing hockey and curling up with Hudson's Bay blankets. In California, Santa Barbara's State Street Ballet does The Hollywood Nutcracker, with Clara as a starlet who envies a femme-fatale variation on the Sugar Plum Fairy at a cast party.

In 1996, New York's Donald Byrd created Harlem Nutcracker, a Christmas story with swing. The score is Tchaikovsky, rearranged by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, and the party scene features salsa dancing, hip-hop, and gospel singers. The Sugar Plum Fairy is reincarnated as Sugar Rum Cherry, a jazz dancer.

This ballet is such a chameleon that it even inspires anti-Nutcrackers who satirize the nostalgia most of the continent loves. Mark Morris's The Hard Nut, which is available on video in the U.S., is just the entertainment for anyone prone to muttering "Bah, humbug". It features a baby boomer's recollections of his hilariously dysfunctional '60s family at Christmas. The contemporary dance romp is full of Morris's trademark wit and gender-bending sensibilities--the tutu-garbed snowflakes, for example, come in both sexes.

Two San Francisco companies also offer antidotes to all the sugar. Dance Brigade's Revolutionary Nutcracker Sweetie does a modern-dance version featuring Drosselmeier as a gay skateboarder. It's subtitled "a two-act treatise on what ails America and the world". There, the Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band features a dance-along version for which the audience shows up in tutus--a kind of variation on all those sing-along Messiahs, with a touch of Rocky Horror Picture Show thrown in.

But Vancouver fans have always liked their Nutcrackers sweet. Fisher dug up a 1931 photo of a Vancouver production that offered a highlights version of the ballet danced by the Russian Ballet of Boris Novikoff--a handful of Russian expatriates with a bare-bones touring company who filled out their ranks with local students. So today, Ballet British Columbia's annual remount of their joint production with Alberta Ballet offers just the hit of seasonal charm most audiences want, taking place next Friday to Sunday (December 17 to 19) at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre.

When the show premiered in 2000, then--executive director Kevin Myers explained why the contemporary company that had once sworn off Nutcrackers was compromising. "We needed to be involved in it [a Nutcracker] because of the financial implications: the potential revenue," Myers said. He added that Ballet B.C., which also runs the danceAlive! series, was tired of seeing all that money leave town with touring shows.

Despite its cynical origins, this homegrown production has been increasingly successful, no doubt due to its classic look and choreography by Mikko Nissinen, who is now director of the Boston Ballet. Today, the show sells about 12,500 tickets and brings in between $350,000 and $450,000 annually.

Thanks to Fisher's book, dance fans can now feel justified in their urge to run, screaming, at the sound of the first plink-plink-plink that signals snowflakes are coming. However, her thoughtful study concludes that much of the dance world's Nut-bashing is a bad habit that overlooks this ballet's importance as a ritual.

"And with rituals, repetition doesn't equal boredom--it equals power."

The Nutcracker plays next Friday to Sunday (December 17 to 19) at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre.