Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Going Nuts for the Nutcracker

It's official. The US is obsessed with the Nutcracker. Every year at this time, there is some version of this beloved ballet playing somewhere around the country - from the heat of Hawaii to the potentially snowy Manhattan.

I remember the first time I saw the Nutcracker. I was 15 and my Dad took me to watch the Australian Ballet dance it in Melbourne. It was my first ever ballet and I was enchanted by the music, the fake snow - I had never seen real snow - and the costumes. I didn't love it enough to want to actually don a tutu myself, but it conjured up all that is good and sweet and fun about childhood.

The first Nutcracker was performed at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg in 1892. Tchaikovsky was commissioned to create a double-bill program including an opera and a ballet. The Nutcracker was an adaptation of E.T.A Hoffman's story The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.

Original production, St Petersburg

Although the premier performance was not considered a success, through various iterations, it has continued to flourish up until today. And nowhere like in the US.

According to New York Times ballet critic Alistair Macaulay, the Nutcracker is loved nowhere else in the world like the US. The Russians have not  kept this ballet in their longstanding repertoire like they have with Giselle and Swan Lake. And Covent Garden declared a "Nutcracker-free" zone for 20 years. It is estimated that almost half the Nutcracker productions each year occur in the US.

This year, there are 3 companies in New York alone dancing different versions of the ballet. And don't think it is only performed in its original form. Apparently there is a Jewish Nutcracker, a production with a chinese dragon, another with hip hop and still another Lesbian/Gay Freedom and and Dance-Along Nutcracker in San Francisco! Take your pick. Whatever your taste, this ballet has become an American institution. Macaulay is so enamored with the ballet, he is running what he calls a "nutcracker marathon" this season, taking in 20 productions around the country.

For myself, I prefer the original Balanchine version. Tchaikovsky's score is partnered with all the Nutcracker wonders you know and love;  mischievous mice, marching toy soldiers, the Land of Sweets, a gorgeous big Christmas tree and of course, the Sugarplum Fairy. I look forward to being transported back to my childhood this Christmas.

Images: new york times

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