Why should we tune in to ‘The Nutcracker’ in 2020?

What happened to ‘Nutcracker’ in the year of COVID?

6 minute read
It’s not just about the holiday tradition: the Pennsylvania Ballet’s Lillian DiPiazza in the 2019 ‘Nutcracker.' (Photo by Alexander Iziliaev.)
It’s not just about the holiday tradition: the Pennsylvania Ballet’s Lillian DiPiazza in the 2019 ‘Nutcracker.' (Photo by Alexander Iziliaev.)

As a year full of challenges draws to a close, it brings another loss: The Nutcracker. This holiday juggernaut is a tradition for many families, drawing all kinds of viewers. I look forward to The Nutcracker every year, but live performances aren’t happening, and livestreams are rare because of large casts that include children.

What does this mean for viewers and performers? Nutcracker ticket sales help most dance companies keep the lights on, so local, regional, and national arts organizations are taking creative approaches. Many will stream past recordings, like Pennsylvania Ballet, which also offers Zoom “tea parties” with popular characters. The Rock School streamed a virtual performance of its Nutcracker 1776, set in Philadelphia, and on December 12 the Kimmel Center streams The Hip Hop Nutcracker, a recording of a version set in today’s New York City. Meanwhile, Miami City Ballet, Dallas’s North Central Ballet, and other companies performed outdoors. As New York City Ballet cancelled this year's production at Lincoln Center, company members joined a production at the Wethersfield Estate in Dutchess County, New York: The Nutcracker at Wethersfield was an immersive, timed-entry performance for small groups with tours of the mansion and outdoor dancing.

More than a holiday tradition

The show must go on, because The Nutcracker has a greater importance than beloved holiday tradition. It is how many children experience live, professional dance for the first time. I saw my first Nutcracker, presented by Albano Ballet Company in Hartford, Connecticut, with my mother, grandmother, and great grandmother. Many kids fall hard for the magic, breathtaking costumes, beautiful dancing, and timeless score. I certainly did. Decades later, I still remember my surprise at dancers leaping from a trunk for the Russian dance.

As an adult, I recognize that part of The Nutcracker’s magic lies in how each version riffs on the story, choreography, and production elements. At the Colorado Ballet, I gasped when Clara (sometimes called Marie) and the Nutcracker Prince boarded a ship to sail through the air. No matter how many times I watched the Sacramento Ballet’s Nutcracker from an unobstructed orchestra seat, I could not detect the moment when John Speed Orr emerged from a trapdoor to replace Clara’s wooden doll with a human prince. And last year at the Academy of Music, I peeked behind the scenes and saw Mother Gingerbread’s enormous dress suspended from rigging, waiting to be lowered onto a dancer for the next PA Ballet performance.

Special effects, festive sets, and a live orchestra playing Tchaikovsky are magic indeed when combined with masterful dancing. But The Nutcracker’s story is magic too: a rare down-the-rabbit-hole journey with a girl as its protagonist. Consider how Clara’s adventure resembles Alice’s trip to Wonderland and Dorothy’s visit to Oz. Yet The Nutcracker also is a coming-of-age tale. A mysterious, powerful older man gives Clara the best Christmas gifts ever—a boyfriend under the tree, a trip to the Land of the Sweets, and a throne—before she wakes to wonder if it was all a dream.

Evolving for the 21st century

These very features also contribute to The Nutcracker’s problematic elements, which include fraught power dynamics as well as Clara’s objectification and lack of agency. This echoes the objectification of performers’ bodies in dance, and the particular pressure on female dancers to attain an unhealthy (if not impossible) ideal reminiscent of a preadolescent girl. Seeing a painfully thin Gelsey Kirkland in American Ballet Theatre’s 1977 recording—my Nutcracker urtext—and knowing of her struggles with abuse, addiction, and disordered eating can distract from her breathtaking performance of Mikhail Baryshnikov’s athletic choreography.

The ‘Nutcracker’ 2020 needs: ‘Hip Hop Nutcracker’ will stream from the Kimmel. (Photo by Tim Norris.)
The ‘Nutcracker’ 2020 needs: ‘Hip Hop Nutcracker’ will stream from the Kimmel. (Photo by Tim Norris.)

Similarly, the white-majority lineup of most ballet companies contributes to the whitewashing of Nutcracker roles, some of which represent people of color. Criticism of The Nutcracker’s colonialist themes and cultural appropriation predates the protests and activism of summer 2020. Some of the fanciful elements are natural and benign, like dancing snowflakes and waltzing flowers, but others are drawn from stereotypes. The second act’s series of divertessments are inspired by sweet treats like marzipan and candy canes as well as tasty products of a global trade that included the trade and enslavement of human beings. Most productions draw from the 1892 libretto Marius Petipa adapted from E.T.A. Hoffmann’s 1816 story “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King,” both written when different ideas prevailed about race, representation, and equality.

What this means is that many versions of The Nutcracker continue to offer troubling portrayals of people of color. For instance, I have seen “Coffee” (the “Arabian dance") portrayed as a sexy harem routine, as well as "Tea" (the "Chinese dance") featuring non-Asian dancers in conical straw hats and bowing to one another. Dance Magazine began to address these problems in its 2013 article “Is Nutcracker Racist?”, which also discussed steps artists are taking to make The Nutcracker more responsive, inclusive, and, well, less racist.

Dance connects us

With these things in mind, Jennifer Weber’s Hip Hop Nutcracker seems like the production 2020 needs. Developed six years ago, HHN has grown into a popular touring production. Because hip hop is a global phenomenon, HHN has “probably the most diverse cast of The Nutcracker that you’ll ever see,” Weber told me. Now more than ever, she said, “It’s really important to present a Nutcracker that’s not 90 percent white.” Set to Tchaikovsky’s score, HHN presents the familiar story and its characters in a new way, such as a Mouse King played by B-girl Randi “Rascal” Freitas.

Most of us rely on entertainment to weather the pandemic without realizing what that means: the arts are getting us through. Dance is particularly important now. As an unspoken language anyone can understand, dance unites people in an experience, live or virtual. This December, keep your holiday traditions alive—or start new ones—by streaming a performance of The Nutcracker with someone you love. Afterward, discuss what you liked and didn’t like, as well as what you would like to see in The Nutcracker when it returns to the stage. Hopefully 2021 brings relief from the nightmares of this year, and the ability to enjoy live dance and the other arts that sustain us.

Image description: A photo from a performance of the PA Ballet’s Nutcracker. A ballerina wearing a white bodice and a gauzy pink knee-length tutu poses on one toe-shoe, with an ensemble of six girls behind her, all wearing full-skirted pink dresses, halo-style headdresses, and wings.

Image description: A photo from a performance of Hip Hop Nutcracker. Three breakdancers, two on their feet and one upside down vaulting off one hand on the stage, are lit by dramatic shafts of blue light.

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