how a Russian composer turned out a highlight of American Christmas
It takes some doing in this country to be more than about 25 miles from a production of “The Nutcracker” during the Christmas season.
The ballet has become as American as Friday Night Lights and as much a holiday tradition as Frosty the Snowman and Charlie Brown.
It is a reliable revenue-generator for ballet academies and companies, and the story and music show up everywhere — in books, advertisements and pop culture. Its popularity has even driven a minor industry in toy nutcrackers.
A ballet based on a novella by the 19th-century German romantic author E.T.A. Hoffmann — a specialist in the supernatural and bizarre — and set to music by Russia’s greatest composer wouldn’t seem an obvious candidate to sweep all before it in the United States, but so it has proved.
Between the “1812 Overture” and “The Nutcracker,” Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky has a big hand in celebrations of American holidays — the overture captures and exemplifies the thunderous spirit of national celebration of July 4, and the ballet the child-centric magic and joy of the American Christmas.
Like many cultural mainstays of the Christmas season, including popular songs, TV shows and movies, “The Nutcracker” is a product of the mid-20th century.
As Jennifer Fisher notes in her book “Nutcracker Nation,” it was first performed in December 1892 in St. Petersburg to a mixed reception. One harsh review called it “a pantomime absurd in conception and execution, which could please only the most uncultured spectators.” It was performed on and off in Russia for decades, but principal dancers weren’t enamored with it, and it never gained a particular association with Christmas.
It came to our shores with a San Francisco production in 1944 and, more significantly, the New York City Ballet in 1954. CBS broadcasts of the New York productions and further exposure on other TV shows and in national magazines spread the show’s influence.
The legendary choreographer and artistic director of the New York City Ballet, George Balanchine, lent the ballet his prodigious credibility. If he thought it was OK to produce, who could disagree?
Whereas, according to Jennifer Fisher, the Russians always thought the ballet needed to be made more serious, Americans embraced its hybrid nature — part children’s pageant, part spectacle and part formal dance. In the 1950s and 1960s, it was still performed off-season, and then, its association with Christmas became complete.
The toys, candy, snowflakes, merry-making and, especially, the central role of a child’s wonder and imagination make it a natural for the holiday.
Way back when it was first being performed in Russia, all the kids in the production were considered a distraction. “In the first scene,” a critic wrote disapprovingly, “the entire stage is filled with children, who run about, blow their whistles, hop and jump, are naughty, and interfere with the oldsters dancing.”
Well, yes. But isn’t that the point?
That the ballet has so many roles for children is a reason it’s perfect for community productions. It can draw on young people of all ages and all skill levels, from little angels and mice to accomplished student dancers in the lead roles. If a production is put on annually, performers and their families can have a years-long commitment to a show. In many places, this makes “The Nutcracker” as much a classic American exercise in civil society as a ballet.
If the plot of “The Nutcracker” is not exactly tight and linear, and what’s happening on stage might be a little chaotic, there’s no questioning the quality of the music. Dance critic Alastair Macaulay calls Tchaikovsky’s score “a cornucopia of color, rhythm, scale, melody.” It is very familiar — hey, wait a minute, is that from “Home Alone”? — yet always powerful and eminently hummable.
In short, to paraphrase the famous Samuel Johnson line about London, if you are tired of “The Nutcracker,” you might be tired of Christmas itself.