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The Tradition of Nutcracker at Christmas


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Admin note: The following posts (the quoted one and the response by bart) were originally in a different thread, in response to an NPR (National Public Radio) piece by Tanya Barrientos. The points in this thread are worth a thread of their own:

It creates a serious branding problem.

The intention of all the Nutcrackers is obviously to fill the theater, pay the bills on the short term and introduce some members of the audience to ballet, so they'll come again. But what happens in the mind of the audience is this:

"FACT 1: There are kids on the stage, in the audience and this is a children's story" => "Nutcracker is a kiddie ballet"


"FACT 2: Nutcracker is the only ballet I know"

=> "Ballet is for kids".

On the long term ballet as a brand is associated with kids. Most of the adult audience will come again only for Nutcracker, therefore creating a vicious cycle where more Nutcrackers have to be performed to survive financially.

Another point she makes is that watching mediocre dancers is not that fun for the untrained eye. This is a good point. Contrary to what you'd expect, the less you know about ballet the more unlikely you are to enjoy a bad performance. It takes knowledge to separate the specific performance from the ballet and you must already be interested enough to make the effort to disregard the mess and search for what is beautiful.

Excellent points, chrisk217. And all of them true, based on my conversations with occasional ballet-goers. Going to see "the Nutcracker" is often perceived on a par with going to see the lighting of tree at Rockefeller Center, or whatever the local variant of that is. I do think, however, that people recognize the dancing level and production values for just what they are. They leave the theater thinking THAT level is what ballet usually is. Does this translate into greater ticket sales? Expanding appreciation of ballet? Willingness to go to an all-Balanchine program next month? Who knows.

The endless repetition of half of the Messiah are the choral equivalent. So is the growing international franchise of New Years at the Vienna Symphony knock-offs.

I wish that there were some national uber-board of ballet policy makers somewhere that could be persuaded to address your points.

Edited by Helene
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I see this question, raised by chrisk217, has been moved to a place of its own --with no responses so far.

I understand -- and to a large extent share -- the love for the annual Nutcracker tradition. It is certainly a rite of passage for young dance students and a way to engender parental-family enthusiasm. And I appreciate the way it allows ballet schools and companies to generate needed income.

But I wonder whether this exercise in branding (Christmas + Tchaikovsky + kids + cash cow = ballet) has not also become a kind of albatross around the neck of the art of ballet, at least in the US and Canada. (Sorry for the excessive animal references). I can't imagine theater or opera (or even British panto) being so dependent on a single work for so much of its performance schedule and income.

Anyone want to weigh in on this issue?

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I posted this anecdote a long time ago, but it's time for a reprise. A friend of mine, long active in the NYCB Guild, told of sitting next to a woman who said she'd been going to the Nutcracker for many years with her children, and was now carrying on the tradition with her grandchildren. He told her that was wonderful and asked if she ever attended other NYCB performances. "No," she said, "I don't like ballet."

Yesterday I went to the Nutcracker with my eleven-year-old grandnephew, who enjoyed what he saw, as did I. (Weese, Hanna, Peck, Kramarevsky). I've been going to NYCB for so long that I remember when Nuts was part of winter season subscriptions. (I hope another old-timer can corroborate this, because it seems so inconceivable now that sometimes I think I may have imagined it.) It doesn't seem to be quite the hot ticket it was a few years ago, but the place was well filled for a performance at the strange time of 5 p.m. The tickets were $99 each. Everything about Nutcracker these days tends to separate it from the NYCB repertory, including the higher prices and the supposedly child-friendly starting times. It's hard to generalize about the audiences. A man in front of me yesterday enjoyed Teresa Reichlen's Coffee much as Mr. B had predicted he would. At the end of her variation he shouted "Brava," (not 'Bravo") while the childnext to him gave him a quizzical look. Most of the kids pay close attention, occasionally asking questions of the adults with them, who seem to have a good time. But it's become very much a special event, even for me. I still have three subscriptions to NYCB, but this was the first Nutcracker I've been to in half-a-dozen years.

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I've been going to NYCB for so long that I remember when Nuts was part of winter season subscriptions. (I hope another old-timer can corroborate this, because it seems so inconceivable now that sometimes I think I may have imagined it.)

The original production premiered in Winter and was only later moved to the Christmas season, so you are remembering this correctly, Farrell Fan.

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Anyone know anything about the time-line and process by which the Nutcracker became specifically a "holiday" blockbuster in the US -- taking over virtually every company's resources and schedule during December, to the exclusion of all else? Or when it became so fixed in the performance schedule of schools?

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Balanchine's version premiered on 2 February 1954. According to Nancy Reynolds in Repertory in Review,

Balanchine's was not the first full-length production (Lew Christensen's for the San Francisco Ballet preceded it, and in the 1940's the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo had a shorter two-act version), but since his staging, the ballet has become a habit.

There's no mention of when the ballet began to be performed at Christmas time. Also according to Reynolds, Balanchine used to reply when asked "Why Nutcracker?"

Before I couldn't do it because we didn't have a theater, didn't have musicians, didn't have money.  Then, finally, we had a little bigger company--and Nutcracker Suite is a million-dollar title in America.  So Baum [managing director of City Center] asked me to do it."

(I wonder if Nutcracker Suite was a popular Boston Pops title. I can't find a date for the original Arthur Fiedler recording.)

According the Choregraphy by George Balanchine, there were four TV showings of excerpts until, in 1957, the full-length version was televised on CBS. Could the exposure on national network television have fueled the Nutcracker craze?

In the opening paragraph her section on The Nutcracker, Reynolds quotes critic Konstantin Skalkovsky's 1899 assessment:

Generally speaking, The Nutcracker was staged mainly for children; for the dancers it contains very little; for art--exactly nothing.  Even its music was rather weak.

Regarding the music, I disagree. As far as the amount of dancing, I guess it depends upon which version, because I haven't seen a major company's production yet where there was not a lot of work to be had for professional dancers, even if I wasn't fond of the choreography. I love the music, and as audience, see a handful of performances each season. If I'm really tired, or the production is mediocre, I might not enjoy a specific performance, but I don't tire of seeing it.

However, there are three things that I find disturbing about the ballet. The first is what chrisk217 raised: if people see middling to bad dancing at their first ballet, which is most likely to be Nutcracker, it can make the idea of attending any more ballet, especially a yearly pilgrimage to The Nutcracker, as welcome as having wisdom teeth extracted. The second is how dependent companies are on this one ballet, not just to recoup the production costs -- even where kids perform and rehearse for free, there is so much added rehearsal time -- but to subsidize the rest of the season. (When Kent Stowell did a "non-traditional" version with Maurice Sendak for PNB, it was considered a great risk to the cash cow, although it turned out to be a great success.) The third is, if I were a parent whose children were performing in a semi- or non-professional troupe, and was asked to hold bake sales, buy costumes, sell tickets to everyone I know, and then schlep the kids to rehearsals, I'd be pretty crabby.

I also think in many ways it's easier to take kids to movies or other, often less expensive, activities where they're not expected to sit still (sadly, even at movies), and where it's easier to grab and unruly kid and enforce a "time-out" without ruining the experience for the other children. I don't think we can underestimate parental anxiety about public appearances, especially when the parents don't feel entirely comfortable in the theater.

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A real overarching theme in Nutz is the conspicuous consumption of consumer goods. As such, it became a natural for American audiences starting in the fifties, and continues so until today, and into the foreseeable future. A similar Christmas-themed ballet was composed by Richard Strauss, Schlagobers, but its atmosphere as well as its music was way out of touch with the festive subject, and reflected the malaise of Weimar-era Germany. Depression seems built into Strauss' astringent score, and can't have made audiences feel relieved from their troubles. It was derided as "the millionaire's ballet."

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Actually, the first full-length Nutcracker in the U.S. was not choreographed by Lew Christensen (as quoted above), but by his brother Willam Christensen. It premiered in 1944 with Gisella Caccialanza as Sugar Plum Fairy and Willam Christensen as the Cavalier. Jocelyn Vollmar was the Snow Queen. Lew's first production was mounted in 1954 and revised in 1967 with the fabulous Robert O'Hearn sets and costumes. It was re-worked again in 1986 with additional choreography by Willam Christensen, Anatole Vilzak (Trepak), and Helgi Tomasson. By far, IMO, the most beautiful, magical version was the O'Hearn production....

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I'm intrigued by the question when the Nutcracker became a kiddie show. Of course we're adults here and we go to see the Nutcracker, too, but nonetheless today the Nutcracker's intended audience is children first and their parents second. This may vary from country to country with their different productions, but this certainly applies to the Balanchine and American branch of the tradition.

However I don't think this was the case with the original production. The Nutcracker was part of a double bill with the short opera Iolantha, and Nutcracker was the lighter part of the evening. I think it was intended to appeal to the child within the adult, and I'm not so sure many Mariinsky patrons brought their children to the theatre. I suspect cases like Alexandre Benois were really exceptional - and the young Benois was taken to the adult shows: he idolized Zucchi.

Petipa in his later years liked to use children extras from the Academy, like the pages in Sleeping Beauty, but that didn't make these shows kiddie shows either. So my hypothesis is the Nutcracker's intended audience changed at some point during the move West, and I wonder when and where. Any ideas?

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A little side-issue reharding the Nutcracker music and its extraordinary scoring.

About Stravinsky's Sacre we're always told that no one had ever heard the kind of sounds the bassoon is making in the opening bars. Never before had the instrument been required to produce such high notes.

Well, maybe it's just me but Stravinsky's top note in the opening bars is a C, whereas the bassoon tune in Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker, as the guests are leaving the christmas party (Act I, Scene 6), reaches up to the G. That's considerably higher; traditionally that tune would have been handled by a flute.

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There is a lot of playfulness and musical stunting going on in the score. One is the effect of the muted strings in the overture. In the march, there are wonderful multi-octave runs, beginning in the lowest strings and ascending through the various sections until it tops off and makes a sort of fountain effect from the flutes. The Grossvater Dance seems right out of Schumann, tunes familiar to the 1892 audience were used for commentary and humorous effect. Even at the entrance of the shell-boat at the Kingdom of Sweets makes use of the flutter-tonguing in the woodwinds called frulato. And of course, there is that celesta!

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Thanks, Benny, for the link. Kena Herod's article -- part description of taking her very young daughter to the Ballet Ouest Nutcracker in Montreal, and part memoir of her own experience as a young Nutcracker participant -- is a reminder of how this tradition creates so many kinds of good and unforgettable experiences.

One point that I identified with was the way that Nutcracker "opened a new world to me." For instance, the score became an obsession the young child. Later, more and more Tchaikovsky were added. And, by the time she was in college, she expanded her taste to include all the other composers "I thought to be more sophisiticated." For me -- who actually saw Swan Lake several times as a child before even hearing of the Nutcracker -- the inspiration came from was another Tchaikovsky ballet. But the process was the same. THANKS, Tchaikovsky, for your ballet music !!!

The article is well worth reading. (The writer, despite the unfortunate Biblical reference in her last name, is definitely a hero of the holiday season.) For those not tempted to read the entire article, here are the first few paragraphs:


"Ballet is perhaps the least democratic art form I know of and yet I can’t think of a work that is more universally adored than The Nutcracker. Along with A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life, The Nutcracker is a holiday tradition for families in many places, especially in North America.

"This December my daughter Vivienne turned four, the absolute youngest age I could conceive of taking someone to their first Nutcracker. To kick off the holiday season with an outing to this ballet is something I have been eager to do for some time—but which production? In Montreal, you have a couple of choices: there is the big stage version by Les Grands Ballets Canadiens at Place des Arts and a smaller-scale production by Ballet Ouest at Centre Pierre-Péladeau. You might think that a dance critic would be keen, like any parent, to give only the “best” to their little girl—but you’d be wrong. The beauty of The Nutcracker is that it is a ballet not only for dancers and dance enthusiasts at every level, but also for audiences of all ages. Based on the success of our outing to Ballet Ouest’s The Sleeping Beauty last spring, I had no doubt that the company, which caters to young audiences, would serve up a holiday feast for both Vivie’s and my delight.

"But I had another motive for taking my daughter to Ballet Ouest: I understand The Nutcracker’s generous spirit because I too performed in similar productions many times over."

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Thanks, Benny, for the link.  Kena Herod's article -- part description of taking her very young daughter to the Ballet Ouest Nutcracker in Montreal, and part memoir of her own experience as a young Nutcracker participant -- is a reminder of how this tradition creates so many kinds of good and unforgettable experiences. 

thanks for linking to her essay -- Kena Herod is a fine writer, and I'm always interested in what she's been seeing.

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