Searching the Sound for the true meaning of 'The Nutcracker' ballet
Special to The Seattle Times
This question recently propelled me on a personal "Nutcracker" odyssey — a tiara-filled tour of four versions of the popular holiday ballet in Tacoma, Sammamish, Auburn and Seattle, and a close reading of the 230-page book "Nutcracker Nation," all in the span of 10 days.
It didn't take much sleuthing to realize that "Nutcracker's" popularity is immense and unwavering. The greater Seattle area has been leaping with at least a dozen productions this month, from Pacific Northwest Ballet's larger-than-life rendition at McCaw Hall, to the small-scale "Nutcracker Puppet Ballet" at the Northwest Puppet Center. The same is true all over the country: Each December, legions of grinning Nutcrackers invade small towns and big cities, and people never fail to line up for tickets.
But when you take a close look at it (say, viewing four performances in close succession), the "Nutcracker" is, well, sort of weird.
The titular star of the show, with his monstrously oversized head and endless rows of gritted teeth, is neither cuddly nor particularly cute. If you are among the tiny handful of uninitiated readers, you must understand that the "Nutcracker" is not just a jaunty nickname. He's an actual nutcracker. (Or as 7-year-old Jacob Iglitzin put it during intermission at a PNB matinee, "It's a soldier-doll-thing and you put nuts in his mouth and he chomps them up.")
Perhaps in 19th-century Russia this was the sort of present that had little girls pirouetting with glee. E.T.A. Hoffmann penned the original (much darker) short story in 1816, which was set to a Tchaikovsky score and turned into a sugary confection for its debut in St. Petersburg in 1892.
But it's hard to imagine that kids today find a nutcracker any more interesting than a salad spinner. (The "bobblehead" Nutcrackers on sale at certain gift shops can only be explained as an attempt at giving the character a contemporary makeover.) Nonetheless, today's kids are exactly the ones who keep donning shiny finery and filling up the seats.
So reliable are the Christmas crowds, in fact, most ballet companies depend on the "Nutcracker" to finance productions for the remainder of the year.
Erin Ceragioli, artistic director of Tacoma City Ballet, says her company's "Nutcracker," which is celebrating its 20-year anniversary at the historic Pantages Theater, usually earns "a quarter-million in ticket sales."
PNB executive director David Brown says this is typical. "As is the case with most ballet companies, 'Nutcracker' is our largest ticket event of the year, bringing in 25 percent of our total revenue, and a little over 50 percent of ticket revenue."
What is it about this rather disjointed old ballet that drives so many people to the box office?
According to Jennifer Fisher, whose recent book "Nutcracker Nation" (Yale University Press, $27) delves extensively into the history and legacy of the ballet, part of what makes "Nutcracker" so lasting is the fact that it's readily adaptable. Communities everywhere create their own versions, and this sense of ownership helps establish a tradition.
Fisher notes that since it first set black-booted foot in America, "Nutcracker" has been subject to local interpretation: "Hulas were added in Hawaii, cowboys in Arizona, hockey players in Winnepeg, Cajun food in Louisiana."
Anne Derieux, development director of Evergreen City Ballet in Auburn, was once a PNB ballerina and a guest principal dancer in a Southwest "Nutcracker." She recalls a Prickly Pear Fairy (instead of a Sugar Plum), a caballero prince (rather than a Cavalier) and coyotes (replacing the mice).
Sometimes people are so committed to "their" "Nutcracker," they don't realize other versions exist. When I was backstage at the Pantages Theater, an assistant led me past a few set pieces and said, "This is the Christmas tree — ours grows." When I mentioned that all "Nutcracker" trees grow, she seemed surprised and explained the TCB production was the only one she'd ever seen.
A media representative for PNB had a similar reaction when I asked her why the company's version didn't include the traditional Mother Ginger section in Act 2 (in which little children dance out from underneath a gargantuan hoop skirt). Unfamiliar with the number, she said, "I've only ever seen ours."
"Nutcracker" audiences and participants are remarkably loyal. The current TCB version features three generations of a local family, headed up by volunteer Jim Konek, who has played "Father" for the past 20 years. Companies invite the neighboring community to join the cast, often using local parents and wee ones for the Act 1 party scene.
ARC Dance Company, which for the third year in a row performed "A Taste of the Nutcracker" in conjunction with the Highland Dance Academy in Sammamish, involved 72 local children in its production.
Inviting community participation not only fosters goodwill, it helps secure ticket sales as well. At the smaller productions, nearly every audience member I spoke with knew someone in the cast.
Companies also tend to adapt "Nutcracker" to the number, gender and skills of their dancers. The ECB added a section with five dolls not customarily seen at the party, importing music from Tchaikovsky's "Sleeping Beauty" to back them up. According to Derieux, "Our choreographer wanted to give opportunities to young dancers."
Consequently, each "Nutcracker" tends to have a slightly different look and feel. Some Nutcrackers crack nuts, and others never go near them. Sometimes Clara dances in the second act, and sometimes she sits still and acts interested. A Cavalier may dress like Mr. Spock, the Marzipan dancers may recall St. Pauli Girls, and Moorish, Chinese and Arabian dances may reflect ethnic stereotypes not seen since Mickey Rooney played a Japanese apartment manager in "Breakfast at Tiffany's."
Despite all that, the power of the "Nutcracker" endures.
"People want to be moved emotionally," says Marie Chong, artistic director of ARC Dance, "and the 'Nutcracker' moves people."
In my own "Nutcracker" journey, I saw many different interpretations, staged in grand old theaters, sparkling new halls and high-school auditoriums (outside of which hung posters for the next Robotics Club meeting). I discovered that several things stay consistent across productions.
• It may be a little or a lot, but that tree will grow.
• When it comes to the Snowflake ballerinas, there is no such thing as too much tulle.
• The Mouse King will be too scary for the younger set, causing a rustle in the audience as laps are leapt into.
• Little girls will dance in the lobby at intermission.
• And when the snow starts to fall toward the end of Act 1, kids in the audience will whisper, "It's snowing!" with such awed delight your heart just about breaks.
Nevertheless, people have a hard time articulating exactly what it is about "Nutcracker" that inspires such devoted enthusiasm. Several people I interviewed mentioned Tchaikovsky's magnificent score and the skillful dancing, but the vast majority of people, like Steve Smith, who has been bringing his family to the TCB performance for more than 10 years, said simply, "It's a family tradition."
Sharon Wright, a grandmother in the PNB audience agrees. "We make a day of it — we get dressed up and have brunch. It's an elegant thing to do, and it teaches the young ones to come to a nice place."
Lauren Golden, age 12, is the real-life twin sister of "Clara" in the ECB production. She's seen the ballet more times than she can count, and says, "You can have a really fun time with your family while watching it."
'Making a memory'
So it's tradition. For families. But don't most of our holiday traditions have a message behind them? The Grinch, "A Christmas Carol," "It's a Wonderful Life" — all remind us material goods aren't where it's at (just when we're scuffling over the last Swan Lake Barbie at the toy store).
Not so the "Nutcracker." Remember, this is a story about a young girl whose somewhat sinister family friend comes to her party and brings her a painted utensil; the girl then falls asleep and dreams (perhaps — or is it real?) that she is swept up in a rodent war and then whisked away by a prince through a blizzard to a kind of international candyland.
What's the message in that? Nuts are more fun than you might think? Killing rats earns you lots of treats? Prince Charming tends to wear questionable trousers?
When I asked audience members this question, I received blank stares. When pressed, the general consensus seemed to be that "Nutcracker" isn't about messages; it's about magic.
PNB audience member Eileen Quigley says, "It's the fantasy of it, the question of what's real and what isn't." Claire Rostov, 8, also at the PNB show, agrees: "The last time I saw it, it made me think it was actually real, so I wanted to come back."
Perhaps that's the answer to the "Nutcracker" mystery. We're drawn to something that can't be "figured out" — something beautiful, which lodges in the mind like a strange but unforgettable dream.
"You're making a memory," says TCB's Ceragioli. "A toy can be forgotten but the 'Nutcracker' will be remembered."
Brangien Davis: firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company