This post has been included in this year’s Best of Holidailies collection!
Hi, I’m Melissa, and I’m addicted to The Nutcracker. Oh, not the story by E.T.A. Hoffmann, but the ballet based upon the story. You know the one – it has music composed by Tchaikovsky, and everyone trots it out in December.
I blame my Auntie Annette for this addiction. Of course, she wasn’t really my auntie at all, but a dear friend of the family, one who always seemed to waltz, rather than merely walking, wherever she was going, and who always smelled like the forest at Christmas, even though I’m pretty sure the most rural place she ever lived was Connecticut.
Every junkie has a gateway drug, and mine was a book called A Very Young Dancer, by Jill Krementz. It’s not a story, so much as a captioned photo-essay about a young girl named Stephanie, a student at the School of American Ballet, the feeder school for the New York City Ballet, who is cast as Marie in the annual production of – you guessed it – The Nutcracker.
It was Auntie Annette who gave me the book – a book I still have, by the way, the year I was six or seven. (Amazon says the publication date was October 1976, but I’m pretty sure I had it in August. Then again, Auntie Annette had connections so it’s very possible she gave me an advance copy. I have vivid memories of being the first of my friends to know anything about this book.)
Let’s assume my memories are correct, and I was six. I was still taking ballet lessons then, and I have an equally-vivid memory of another aunt’s dog eating my ballet slippers the following summer. But really, it doesn’t matter, that book got me hooked on The Nutcracker, and I remain loyal to it decades after I stopped taking ballet lessons, or, in fact, any kind of dance classes whatsoever.
But isn’t The Nutcracker the first ballet for almost every little girl? I mean, I guess some kids see Coppelia first, but it’s not quite as engaging, or as magical. (By the way, has anyone noticed how many ballets are based on some kind of doll coming to life? Not just ballets, actually, but children’s stories in general.)
My earliest memory of seeing The Nutcracker live is when I was nine and we lived in Arvada, Colorado. My best-friend-at-the-time and I had been in a fight for the weeks leading up to the performance, but our mothers had bought a row of seats for the four of us and her little sister. Each of us, independently, had worked out how our mothers would sit next to each other, with us on their far sides, so we wouldn’t have to talk.
Of course, by the time the actual day came, we’d started speaking again, which both good – because for weeks afterward we did our best to recreate the ballet in their basement bedroom – and bad – because my mother worked with one of the dancers, or knew her mother, and had arranged for us to go backstage, and that meant I had to share the experience.
My addiction was cemented at that point.
Since then, I’ve seen numerous productions, both live, and on video. San Francisco Ballet’s version is one of my favorites, but I grew up on PBS’s annual airing of the ABT version with Mikhail Baryshnikov & Gelsey Kirkland, and that’s still the one I know best. I’ve seen the movie that was made out of the Pacific Northwest Ballet’s version (which features sets designed by Maurice Sendak. (Yes, that Maurice Sendak.) It’s a favorite as well, and just the other night I was watching a version of the NYC Ballet’s interpretation that was filmed years ago, and features a Home Alone era Macaulay Culkin as the Nutcracker/Prince.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve started to see different things in the different versions of the story.
For example, Marie (who is sometimes Clara), is often played by a child, as is, in fact, the Nutcracker Prince. These interpretations usually have lots of children in the first act, and very few in the second (only those who pop out from under Mother Ginger’s skirt), while Marie and the Prince pretty much just watch Act II from a throne all the way upstage.
Other interpretations use an adult dancer as Marie/Clara, or at least an older teenager, and play up her budding romance with the Nutcracker/Prince. Sometimes they even get an Act II pas de deux.
The Nutcracker/Prince is often introduced in the Act I party scene as Drosselmeier’s apprentice or nephew, which means that, if Drosselmeier isn’t merely an ‘affectionate’ uncle, Marie and the boy are kissing cousins.
A rare few interpretations (and Pacific Northwest Ballet is one of them) add a dash of unresolved sexual tension between Marie/Clara and Drosselmeier. (There’s a fanfic waiting to be written.)
I haven’t catalogued all the details of every production, obviously, but I do know this: during December there is a version of the Nutcracker playing somewhere almost every day. In the next two weeks, my DVR will be recording at least six different productions, only one of which I’ve seen before. There are at least seven local live productions of the ballet happening in the same time period, within 30 miles of my house. (I might drag Fuzzy to one. He’s never been.)
I prefer the live performance experience: the thrill when the overture starts to play, the way the audience always gasps when the Christmas tree starts to grow (which is really Marie/Clara shrinking, of course, but…it’s still cool), the little girls all dressed up for what is, for many, their first time in a real theater, and the obligatory trip to get hot chocolate (when I was a kid) or Irish Coffee (now) afterward. I love the pure dancing in Act II, when the Sugar Plum Fairy dances with her cavalier, and the Dew Drop Fairy dances with her flowers.
But even if we don’t make it to a live performance, I’m looking forward to having a few dates with my Nutcracker Prince over the weeks between now and Christmas. He’ll bring the great music and muscular thighs, and I’ll bring coffee, Danish butter cookies, and my appreciation of the arts.
And when Christmas comes, and the magic is over for a year (because a post-Christmas Nutcracker is just as sad as the early morning walk-of-shame after a poorly chosen one-night stand) I’ll put my Nutcracker, the one sent to me from Germany, back in its box, and focus once more on more contemporary stories.
But only until next year, of course.
I mean, you can only go so long until your next “fix.”