• Zoe Phillips

Sugar Plum Saccharine?

In Defense of The Nutcracker’s Mass Production

(photo: Heidelberg University)

I love ballet. I love pink tights and leotards, satin shoes and bobby pins. I love classical music and french words and I find joy in the exacting nature of pure technique. I bask in the historicism of every single micromovement and I spend too much time on YouTube watching those dancers who have perfected the craft to a level beyond comprehension.

I recognize, however, that these sentences resonate with a rapidly decreasing number of people. I know that classical music isn’t as interesting as the latest hip hop album and that dance today is more about embracing mistakes than scrutinizing them. Individuality is the new uniformity. I like that side of things, too — just not as much. I can often feel caught in a state of compromise, willing myself to see the beauty in things out of my comfort zone because I know that in them lies the future in which I will be expected to find some sort of career.

There is one point in every year, though, when my internal conflict of trying to love what everyone else loves stays at peace. This one annual traditional leaves me in the middle of the mainstream, drooling over the same music and movements and costumes as the rest of the world.

The Nutcracker.

Christmas eve parties and life-size dolls and snowflakes and dewdrops and a score that’s blasted across dance studios and car commercials and Starbucks shops alike. For one month out of the year, the world becomes interested in ballet and Tchaikovsky’s notes reverberate across the globe.

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the first full production of The Nutcracker in America. On December 24th, 1944, the San Francisco Ballet premiered the show in the city where I would later be born. Back then, it was just another ballet — just another transportation of an old art form across a large ocean.

Given the timing of this debut, however, the show became one of the first family holiday traditions made available to soldiers coming home from World War II. In the coming decade, as the United States descended into the Cold War, The Nutcracker became refined into a celebration of anti-communist middle class life. Act I gives us perfect nuclear families, fathers dancing with daughters, and living room parties full of neighborhood cheer. Act II capitalizes on a childhood imagination free from anxiety or hardship.

Ten years later, growing choreographer George Balanchine built on on all this by making his own version. In 1957 and ’58, the production was televised for families across the nation. This access, given in an era when television dominated the American media landscape, cemented the show’s position as a holiday tradition.

A half-century later, our holiday commercialization remains steeped in sugar plum sweetness. In 1980, the Care Bears starred in their own two-episode Nutcracker adaption. Beastly, the show’s pudgy antagonist, played the Rat King. In 2001, Barbie starred in her own animated version of the story. In 2007, animated characters Tom and Jerry appeared in A Nutcracker Tale, which used excerpts of Tchaikovsky’s score played by the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia. In 2018, ballerina Misty Copeland appeared in Disney’s The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, a film that was almost universally rejected by audiences and critics alike. Despite this unfortunate performance, however, the very concept of a ballet going blockbuster remains rare (Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan being a complicated exception).

Even onstage, The Nutcracker’s allure continues to inspire choreographers and directors to redesign the Christmas classic. In the 1960s, Mark Morris staged The Hard Nut, a hippie and hilarious reinterpretation of the story. In 2004, San Francisco Ballet’s Helgi Tómasson restaged their version to be set in their titular city during the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition. Other companies have followed suit: the Joffrey Ballet’s is set at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and the National Ballet of China recently redesigned their production to take place during Chinese New Year. South Africa’s Joburg Ballet moved theirs to Africa — the Waltz of the Flowers takes place in the Kalahari Desert and Drosselmeyer becomes a sangoma, a traditional African healer.

Audiences across the world come flocking to these productions and interpretations of the same Christmas story as part of a larger celebration of the holiday season. The Nutcracker becomes an event that brings families together across ages and interests, but I am aware that in between the pop-culture proclivity for this holiday staple there are many dancers who cannot stand it. I’ve heard my fair share of complaints about the ridiculous schedule and heavy makeup and the musical phrases that get stuck in your head after months of rehearsals.

Dancers are hungry for movement that employs meaningful symbolism, especially when it addresses a social issue and bonus points if it’s somehow interdisciplinary. Why should they still care so much about this outdated, over-commercialized, sugar bomb of a ballet?

My answer to this lies in the criticism itself. It’s the very marketing — the commercialization — of Nutcracker that makes it increasingly important year after year. The figurines in hallmark stores, the themed beverages, and the car commercial soundtracks: all of this make the The Nutcracker the most well known work of dance on our planet.

In fact, it has become such a stable staple of ballet’s repertoire that companies and schools rest their entire financial prospects on its success. In economic terms, that is hugely risky and generally frowned upon, and for the unstable nature of an arts company this risk becomes further exacerbated.

But Nutcracker is so firmly popular that these guidelines get thrown out the window (or, perhaps, into the wings). In 2011, the Washington Ballet’s yearly revenue came in at $9.4 million dollars: that’s counting ticket sales, fundraising campaigns, and their entire associated school. 22% of that total number came from The Nutcracker alone.

This season, San Francisco Ballet will perform nine different programs, but they expect to get 40% of their yearly ticket revenue from Nutcracker. According to DanceUSA, total Nutcracker ticket sales amongst all survey respondents hit $51 million in 2017. According to the same report, the show represents an average of 48% of overall season revenues in all participating companies. That’s a lot of money, and an excellent cushion for the rest of a company’s season of less well-known works.

Beyond a cushioned paycheck, though, The Nutcracker also serves an important purpose for dance itself. When I researched this aforementioned ballet dancer rejection of our most famous show, one of my favorite headlines read “Fuck The Nutcracker: Why you should go see every ballet but this one.”

But that’s the problem — people don’t.

Increasingly, dance audiences are made up of only dancers, present or former. They are there to spot intricacies of technique that require a trained eye to see, and they will consume artistry through different and more subtle avenues. In an extensive set of research from Ballet Austin, marketers explained this phenomenon when they wrote “what we thought we were saying was not what people were hearing.” Even the word “repertoire” was foreign to certain audiences, and visual representations presented their own difficulties. The abstract promotion materials made for avant garde works was often lost on consumers — in one poster, an artistically drawn cloud was mistaken for a mattress ad.

In this sense, new works of ballet can unintentionally feel excluding to those who don’t understand these subtleties.

The Nutcracker is not subtle. In fact, The Nutcracker is to ballet what a big stadium is to football. I barely know what a fourth down means, but I still love my college game days. I usually stand next to my brother, who knows the ins and outs of every football rule, regulation, guideline, play, you name it and more.

If game day attendance was made up of only people like him, of only the biggest and most knowledgeable of fans, I would never go. I would stay home out of fear of misunderstanding and boredom, the same way that my brother would never go to a performance of Crystal Pite on his own free will.

But the overt excitement surrounding The Big House, my school’s beloved 100,000-person stadium, allows us to both look forward to Saturdays despite coming from such different starting points.

The Nutcracker’s over-emphasis does the same thing. It is often the first show a child will see and even more commonly the first one in which they’ll perform. It might be a weird story, but it’s also easy to follow, and its familiarity through popular culture opens doors to communities otherwise unknowing of dance.

Christmas season thus becomes a time when theaters everywhere open their doors to everyone, offering something every audience can understand. It bridges gaps between ballet and the rest of the world, and for that it deserves to be celebrated as the important foundation of our art that it is.

I originally wrote this essay for a Think Piece as part of the final portfolio assignment of Dance 448 at the University of Michigan, December 2019

Updated 2020. Many thanks to Emily Considine for the header art at the top of my page!