The World Changes, The Nutcracker Stays the Same



I never took ballet lessons as a child. In my childhood hometown, a tiny hamlet of 500 in Northern Ontario, my parents deemed clog dancing more appropriate. Perhaps it was also better suited to my gangly, all-together clumsy self—but still, a girl can dream… Growing up, I never saw the ballet in person, but I waited each holiday season for the Bolshoi Ballet’s performance of “The Nutcracker” to be broadcast anew on TV. My love had no real discretion—I loved “The Nutcracker” on ice, too.

Years later, when I moved to New York and submitted to the jaded grip of adult life, I was given a most unexpected gift, a ticket to George Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker.” Lithe bodies dressed like confections; perfect nuclear families gathered around an idyllic Christmas tree—I had to have it! I’ve now seen Balanchine’s version danced by the New York City Ballet for six consecutive years, and no version really compares with Balanchine’s flawless choreography, and the elaborate sets used at Lincoln Center.

Attending the performance this year with an assignment, I absorbed more closely the minutiae of the experience, scribbling notes throughout the night. Reading my notes afterwards, they were a nonsensical jumble of words and phrases: “holiday dresses”; “red bows”; “this is an occasion”; “children”; “joy”; “twinkle.” It was too much for me.

I waited in anticipation for the end of Act One, “The Dance of the Snowflakes”—the perfect, Degas-like vision of what my schoolgirl mind believed ballet ought to be. After the evil Mouse King is defeated by The Nutcracker, the set slowly moves away and another glides in—snow-capped Evergreens bathed in a light so authentic, it reminds me of silent, winter nights in Canada. The nutcracker tears off his disguise… he is a Prince! He crowns Marie his princess. And then it begins to snow, lightly at first, and increasing with the music’s crescendo. Marie and her Prince exit stage right, and an army of music box-perfect ballerinas flutter to the stage, and serenade us with a dance in the fanciful sprinkle of falling flakes.

“The Nutcracker” has been a holiday tradition for New Yorkers since its city debut in 1954, and the predictability of the performance gives a sense of comfort and ease. It asks us nothing in return, does not confuse us, challenge us or disappoint us. Which is why we only get it once a year.