The Nutcracker. No other ballet in the history of dance has become so synonymous with Christmas and American tradition. It’s hard to believe that the ballet originally flopped when first premiered at the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre in 1892. In fact, it did not truly become the phenomenon it is today until re-staged by Willam Christensen and the San Francisco Ballet more than fifty years later. Tchaikovsky’s score, originally critiqued by some as “ponderous” and “insipid” is now employed for everything from football blooper videos to automobile commercials. I once walked out of Macy’s in defiance when the “Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy” came on over the speakers. It was my first time dancing the role, and I had broken out in a sweat when the music infiltrated my unsuspecting psyche while innocently shopping for Holiday gifts.
It’s not that I don’t like the Nutcracker or its music. On the contrary, it has become an inherent part of my life, my career--literally part of the fabric of my being. I am not exaggerating. To a professional ballet dancer Christmas without Nutcracker would be like Thanksgiving without turkey...we joke about its ubiquitousness, but deep down we are ever so slightly addicted to it. I have numerous friends who have retired from dancing and they are still involved in the Nutcracker. If not actually performing as a guest dancer, they are teaching other children how to be toy soldiers and Mother Ginger’s polichinelles, or at least attending as an audience member. Like an old friend, the Nutcracker never really leaves a dancer’s life completely.
How did we become infected with such a virus? Everyone has a different story. My first experience with the Nutcracker was as a child watching Gelsey Kirkland and Mikhail Baryshnikov on PBS. I can remember being all alone in the living room (my brothers were not so interested), entranced by the magical story unfolding before me. The televised version of Baryshnikov’s Nutcracker was not only technically flawless from the dancing perspective, but also included close-ups of Clara’s enchanted facial expressions and Drosselmeyer’s ambiguous and mysterious side show. In the final scene, I was truly convinced that Clara in fact had not been dreaming, but had journeyed to a magical place in another dimension--a place that I was dying to be a part of myself. Little did I know that one day, I would indeed be a part of Nutcracker-land, over and over and over again.
Every year, at least one person looks at me with pity and says that they don’t know how we dancers can stand performing the same thing 30 times year after year. And in the next moment, another person will look at me with bright eyes when they learn I am a ballerina and exclaim, “Do you dance in that show...the Nutcracker...I LOVE that one!” It’s an interesting dichotomy in which we are placed.
The truth is that most dancers don’t actually loath performing the same thing over and over again. Most of them enjoy the opportunity to master their craft at something, to have it so in their system that they can relax enough to enjoy the experience of being on stage and connecting with an eager audience (it is rare to find any Scrooges attending the Nutcracker). Of course, there are exceptions. If there are particular roles or choreography that a dancer is not fond of, you can imagine the kind of torture it would be to put on a happy face in front of 2,000 people every day for the entire month of December.
But boredom itself is not a problem for most dancers. Ballet is a live performing art. Even though the choreography is the same, there are an infinite number of ways to execute and find character, nuance and expression within those steps. When I dance the Sugarplum Fairy, I feel as if I am dancing with three partners. There is my Cavalier with me on stage, there is the conductor and orchestra in the pit, and beyond that there is the audience. Each of these partners plays a crucial role in the art I am creating on stage, and they are different every performance. In addition, my body is never the same body from day to day, moment to moment. Although we may look light and effortless as we piroette and jete across the stage, in reality we may be having a serious conversation with a sore hamstring or knee in order to create that illusion.
The Nutcracker is a love-hate symbiotic relationship with all involved. As dancers, we never get to go shopping on Black Friday, we have to check our gluttony on Thanksgiving and Christmas day (no-one wants to see a plump Plum or hung-over Prince rolling around the stage the next day), and Holiday Parties must go unattended. Christmas shopping usually happens at midnight on the computer when we get home from the theatre. Christmas cards get written in the physical therapy room while waiting to get an ankle adjusted between matinee and evening performances. Often we are unable to go “home” to visit our families. The theatre becomes our home. The other dancers, musicians, and stage-hands become our family. Every year Davie, our prop guy, sets up a fake Christmas tree in the Green Room of the Opera House. Although we don’t sit around it singing Christmas carols, its presence is comforting as we fill our coffee cups in preparation for the second show of the day. The sheer athleticism of performing six weeks straight inevitably takes a physical and emotional toll on us. Compound this with the universal stress that comes with the Holidays, and most dancers are ready to collapse when the curtain comes down on the last performance.
That being said, there is also an intangible “specialness” that comes with being a performer during the Holidays. If you can strip Christmas-time of its commercialism, emotional baggage and stress, there is a festive, beautiful, and generous spirit that can be tapped into. For many, attending the Nutcracker is a way to fill that cup. Ultimately we dancers understand our responsibility as magic-makers, and we feel honored to do so. There is nothing more satisfying than finishing a well-executed Nutcracker performance and knowing a thousand little faces will leave the theatre smiling and wondering if Clara really did have a beautiful adventure with her Nutcracker Prince.
Sharon Wehner as Dewdrop in The Nutcracker, photo by Mike Watson