I wonder did E.T.A. Hoffman ever think that his fairytale would be immortalized in a classical ballet. More than likely not; I’m guessing most writers secretly wish for their creations to live on in their original written incarnation. Still, I’m sure he’d be glad to be credited with what must surely be the most commercially successful ballet of all time. While it may not be a work of the highest artistic merit, the box office figures aren’t to be argued with.
Choreographer Marius Petipa, with no small contributions by Lev Ivanov and composer Tchaikovsky, is responsible for three of the most well-known ballets in today’s repertoire: The Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake and of course, The Nutcracker. They are the ballets which provide both the archetype and stereotypes of classical ballet, and they have transcended the insular world of dance becoming our representatives in the fickle world of pop-culture. Nutcracker, more than the others, has become part of the cultural calendar: it is looked to, world-over, as the Christmas ballet, and companies, whether they like it or not, are expected to wheel it out year after year.
Some companies to resist this expectation: The Royal Ballet regularly presents alternatives such as Ashton’s Les Patineurs and The Tales of Beatrix Potter in a bid to avoid a Sugar-Plum monopoly; the fact that they run these alongside Nutcracker performances, shows the futility of going against the grain.
There is a bit of a feeling, especially among dancers, that Nutcracker is an exercise in twee-ballet, some might even call it cheesy, but looking at the list of choreographers that have revisited the Kingdom of Sweets, it reads like a roll-call of luminaries: Balanchine, Nureyev, Baryshnikov, Morris, Bejart, Ratmansky. This list is by no means exhaustive; it doesn’t even scratch the surface, but it does show the credibility the ballet carries in it’s history, the constant re-imaginings keeping it fresh and preventing it fromdescending into pastiche.
The Nutcracker has become the panto of the middle-brow: but how has it become such a favourite? Why does it work so well?
Unlike most other ballets, Nutcracker has the ability to engage children. Other ballets might catch the eye of some youngsters, but what other ballet has a giant Christmas tree? Or a fight between toy soldiers and mice? Or sprightly little dance numbers like the Chinese? There are very few ballets have content to sate the tastes of a boisterous child, and this is one of them.
For the grown-ups too, it has its allure: beautiful music – Waltz of the Flowers, and the sumptuous Waltz of the Snowflakes – to accompany some pristine, classical dancing. There’s also the Sugar-Plum fairy: the ultimate ballerina role – classy, elegant and not even a hint of tragedy (perfectly delivered by Miyako Yoshida in the below above). The ballet has the same effect as your favourite yuletide film: comforting by virtue its familiarity and dependability.
From the point of view of the choreographer, even though it has been tackled so many times before, the ballet still has a lot to offer: the score is truly wonderful for dance, although Ratmansky has commented that its familiarity hinders spontaneity, but there is plenty of scope for unapologetic dance for dance’s sake.
So, while dancers (and I’m sure directors, ballet staff, musicians, stage crew) baulk at the prospect of yet another Nutcracker season, its universal appeal gives many companies the financial freedom to present other, more interesting, work throughout the year: thank you Tchaikovsky and thank you Petipa, for giving a gift which benefits year-round – how’s that for twee!