Uncracking the Nutcracker Obsession

December 13, 2015

 

I was four years old and my mom dressed me in my Christmas sweater and sparkly red shoes so we could walk across the street to see my sisters’ debut in The Nutcracker on Ice.

 

During the first act, my sister Anna created the first mishap of the show. She was a mouse but the pressure and supposed glamour of the stage proved overwhelming. She was swelled up with baby fat and had apparently eaten every sugarplum she could find. She attempted to stand up and plopped to the ground with a thud terribly uncharacteristic of a mouse. With a few more feeble attempts she admitted defeat and lay motionless on the ice.

 

My parents had recovered from Anna’s incident and most of the audience seemed to have forgotten the pudgy little rat that lay pronated on the ground like the Vitruvian Man. They looked to their programs during intermission and gave a sigh of relief that Anna’s stage time had ceased and Jenna and Sophie were on next.

Jenna was very confident in her abilities as a performer and was unable to process why she wasn’t the star of the show. She’d spent the last few weeks perfecting a butt spin on the ice and exhausted the teachers at the chalet by trying to convince them it should become part of the curriculum. When the lights went up, Jenna shoved her way to the front and took center stage in an attempt to break dance. Her avant-garde approach resembled something like a barrel clumsily rolling down a hill. The audience chuckled and my mom shifted uncomfortably in her seat while my dad cussed and shut off the videocamera.

 

To my parents’ relief, the show came to an end and it was time for the bow. Sophie was the last soldier to enter and she skated in and overshot her stride. She hit the girl next to her and we watched in terror as the entire line tumbled down like sequined dominos. I guess you could say the Mire girls brought the house down. After the show my parents grabbed my sisters and I and we left as quickly as possible. The year’s production became dubbed “Mire and Ice.”

 

For years after that I didn’t attend a single Nutcracker. Finally, I decided to see what all the fuss was about so I bought a ticket to see Moscow Ballet’s Nutcracker at the Tennessee Theatre.

 

Truthfully…I didn’t get it. Sometimes dancers will talk about all their Nutcracker stories and while I feel left out I can’t be too upset. It seems to me like the perfect scam. To begin I went to the production in Tennessee where only four professional dancers performed. The rest of the cast was comprised of children who “auditioned” the day of. Obviously, the use of children was a brilliant idea. The audience was filled with grandparents, aunts, uncles, and parents who gushed over their untalented, confused children onstage. They thought it was cute. I thought it was a waste of my time. My dance teacher used to always say, “if you make a mistake onstage I’ll still love you. But I won’t like you.” To which I entirely agree. However, company and marketing directors are not stupid. They realize that more children equals more money and it clearly pays off considering that professional ballet companies make somewhere between 40-45% of their annual revenue from the Nutcracker. The companies even rank their productions and send poorly taped Tchaikovsky’s recordings to smaller cities while charging the same amount of money for tickets.

 

In fact, the custom of attending an annual Nutcracker is what makes ballet companies financially stable whereas modern dance companies are struggling with feeble casts and minimal room to play with new projects. Just imagine if modern dance had something like the Nutcracker that forced people to attend a performance on an annual basis.

 

Truthfully, I don’t think the Nutcracker is all that strong. My interpretation of the Nutcracker based on E.T.A. Hoffman is as follows. Picture a party scene that’s much too long and then a little girl falls asleep with her toy Nutcracker. A battle takes place because naturally the greatest enemy of mice is a threatening Nutcracker. The Nutcracker eventually turns into a prince (shocker) and they meet the Sugarplum Fairy and her inaccurate, politically incorrect cultural dances with a final pas de deux between the fairy and cavalier featuring predictable gender roles and a Sugarplum Fairy whose appearance suggests her name is purely ironic. So in other words it’s Beauty and the Beast meets Candy Land with a splash of Toy Storyand a subdued Mean Girls all put to a huge orchestral soundtrack that overwhelms the plot (or lack thereof) that’s taking place.

 

The overdone show has since been spiced up and revamped with sexual Nutcrackers, satires, and everything in between. Some people find the spin off Nutcrackers to be disrespectful to the show. However, I more often than not find myself more offended by the traditional version.

 

In the original rendition, the “Celebration of Dancers” is both offensive and racist. It features stereotypes that are about as politically incorrect as Trump in a debate on feminism.  For instance, the Arabian piece features a sultry number with a woman wearing harem pants (naturally). Meanwhile the Chinese dancers wear kimonos and shuffle around dressed as Chinese peasants. They might as well be running from King Kong at that point since Chinese culture becomes whitewashed and joined with every other Asian/oriental country.

 

After the show, people are buying Nutcrackers, sweatshirts, coffee mugs, and every other merchandise that a tourist wearing a fanny pack and cargo shorts might buy on vacation.

 

Despite my strong opinions on the ballet, I am not trying to discourage people from attending the Nutcracker. Support of the arts in any vicinity should be applauded. However, when watching the annual show, it’s important to recognize what you’re paying money to see. If the rationale is merely due to “tradition,” then maybe it’s time to reconsider and revamp your holiday festivities. Tradition is nice in its nostalgic ideology, but it may be hindering audiences from exposing themselves to progress that’s taking place within the arts. So maybe next time you want to go to a ballet, see something contemporary or revisit another classic. You might be surprised at what you’ll find.

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