But the story of “The Nutcracker” in America is a story of innovation. And the same creative spirit that will help Americans re-create at least a little of this treasured ritual can help revitalize the ballet for generations to come. “The Nutcracker” was not always beloved, nor was it always associated with the holiday season. When it premiered in Russia in 1892, hopes were high for a ballet created by the same team — composer Peter Tchaikovsky and choreographer Marius Petipa, this time with the aid of his assistant Lev Ivanov — that had so successfully ushered “Sleeping Beauty” to the stage two years earlier. But Tchaikovsky himself thought the new ballet was “infinitely worse” than “Sleeping Beauty,” and the critical and audience reception was lukewarm. “The Nutcracker” was only sporadically revived over the next few decades. Some Americans had a chance to see a condensed version staged by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in the 1940s on the company’s many cross-country tours, and Disney’s “Fantasia” helped popularize the music. But it wasn’t until 1944 that the San Francisco Ballet performed the first full-length “Nutcracker” in the United States.
It took another decade for George Balanchine’s wildly popular 1954 New York City Ballet production of “The Nutcracker,” with its magically growing Christmas tree, to link the show inextricably to Christmas. In December 1957 and 1958, CBS broadcast the New York City Ballet’s live “Nutcracker” performances, cementing its status as a holiday perennial.
Though not everyone uses Balanchine’s choreography, even unique productions such as the Washington Ballet’s “Nutcracker” — with its Georgetown setting, cherry blossoms and Miss Liberty character — are set during the Christmas season. Dance studios everywhere make local productions a December ritual, and American ballet companies typically bring in almost half of their annual revenue from “Nutcracker” performances and other holiday shows.
One of the most appealing features of “The Nutcracker” for Americans is the very thing that the original Russian audience rejected: lots of children onstage. Nineteenth-century Russians wanted to see professionals at the height of their craft, but 20th-century Americans immersed in the child-centered culture of the baby boom and beyond were at least as interested in cuteness as in virtuosity. Most American productions follow Balanchine’s lead in casting children as Marie (Clara, in some versions); her pesky brother, Fritz; and the Nutcracker Prince, as well as dozens of other roles.
This charming tradition is a business opportunity, too: Larger studios and companies often double-cast the roles, both in case something happens to their young performers and to increase the number of relatives, friends and neighbors who want to see their little darlings onstage. Companies hope “Nutcracker” audiences will attend other performances, while ballet schools count on dazzled children enrolling in class themselves.
The ballet’s popularity has not exempted it from critique — instead, it has prompted productive soul-searching. Dance critics worry that overreliance on familiar ballets such as “The Nutcracker” encourages conservative programming. Professional dancers weary of performing the same show as many as 50 times a year.
Only in the past few years have companies begun to address the racist tropes of the choreography associated with the ersatz “national” dances of the second act, which until recently involved yellowface in the “Chinese” dance and darkened body makeup in the “Arabian” dance.
The saccharine nature of the music and basic story line has also prompted radical revampings. Mark Morris’s “The Hard Nut” features a racially inclusive cast performing a choreographic combination of ballet and modern dance in the fantasy world of the second act. “Nutcracker Rouge,” an adult-oriented rendition, is more akin to burlesque than to classical ballet. All this healthy reimagining has helped keep the ballet current and a meaningful part of generations of Americans’ holiday traditions. This year, communities may not be able to coalesce around local productions of “The Nutcracker.” Families may not be able to introduce wide-eyed children to the magic of live theater and dance. But companies large and small have come up with some creative solutions.
Companies such as the Washington Ballet, Pennsylvania Ballet and the San Francisco Ballet are offering online performances, some with interactive components such as storytelling and backstage tours, and all with more affordable ticket prices and close-up camera angles, making this tradition newly accessible in more ways than one. Movement Headquarters Ballet, a start-up company in New York, is developing an original production featuring not only new choreography but also — more radically — an entirely new score.
The Nutcracker Prince and Sugar Plum Fairy can still enchant us, even if their magic is mediated through a computer or television screen. We can bring “The Nutcracker” home and dream of a sweeter, safer 2021.