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Nutcracker Memories

As 2020 recedes into the past, we emerge from the winter holidays and welcome a new year.  But in any other year in recent memory, a signature regional holiday event would only now be wrapping up its annual run.  This is the New York City Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker, presented at Lincoln Center from the day after Thanksgiving through early January.  While The Nutcracker is now performed by professional dance companies and youth programs across the country, it was George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet (NYCB) that established the Tchaikovsky ballet as an American tradition in 1954.  Of course this January, there is no Nutcracker run to be completed, with the pandemic continuing to preclude live performing arts nationwide.

This particular version of The Nutcracker has been on my mind, as it played a starring role in the documentary series On Pointe, released last month on the Disney Plus streaming service.  On Pointe tracks an academic year (2019-2020) at the City Ballet’s training academy, the School of American Ballet.  As soon as I learned of On Pointe, I knew I would binge-watch it in one weekend. This I did, and I’m allowing myself to say it was one weekend because I watched the sixth and final episode on Saturday.  Morning.  I was transfixed and transported to memories of my childhood.  My parents have been partial season ticket subscribers to the NYCB for as long as I can remember, enabling them to attend the ballet all winter long.  On occasion, they brought us children along, and a very few times we saw The Nutcracker at Christmastime.  This strikes me now as quite a grand-seeming pastime for a family headed by two teachers living a modest life in the suburbs.  But as I said to a friend years ago when describing how I spent my teenage years as the standing ballet-night babysitter to my siblings, it was their thing.  (“Did they have to have a thing?” was her reply, one I often remember now that I am a parent myself.  I don’t have a thing.)

Watching On Pointe, I followed the stories of the young students as they juggled hours of dance class with their schoolwork and other commitments.  The more advanced students train intensively and many of them live on-site in a school dormitory.  The main story in the series is that of preparing for The Nutcracker, which features children from the school (about age 12 and younger) alongside the adult company members.  The students audition to be cast in the ballet and rehearse in the evenings for weeks after their dance classes.  Finally, each of the two children’s casts appears on stage twenty-five times for a total of fifty performances.  What these families experience is a near-overwhelming whirlwind of activity during an already frenetic time of the year.  And then The Nutcracker ends, and the whirlwind dies down.  There is a period of disorientation described by some of the parents -- a re-adjustment to the new (old) normal.  A reset for the new year.

Alas, the intended denouement for the series -- in which we learn who will advance in the school, who will be invited to the professional company -- is upended by the pandemic.  Students go home for a hiatus of a few weeks, which becomes the rest of the semester, and once again but with much less warning and no precedent, they are disoriented.  They make do, adjust to zoom classes from their homes newly outfitted with ballet barres; they can no longer predict their future paths.

As we now know, performing arts venues in New York and elsewhere remain dark.  They are devoid of the artists who perform there, the audience members who gather there, and the professional staff who work there.  For ballet companies all across America, the loss of the Nutcracker season is particularly painful, as it typically provides close to 40 or 50 percent of a company’s annual revenue, according to a recent news article.  It is difficult to fathom the financial crisis engulfing the arts in America.  At the dawn of this new year, one can hold out hope that the performing arts will resurge as our public health outlook improves.  As with so many other life habits that for now must remain memories, I await the return of the shared experience of live creative expression.  I don’t think I’ve ever appreciated it more.

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The Nutcracker originates from E.T.A. Hoffman’s 1816 story The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.  A young girl, Marie (or Clara, in many versions) receives a gift of a nutcracker from her uncle on Christmas Eve.  That night, the nutcracker comes to life and defeats the evil Mouse King in battle, transforms into a boy, and journeys with Marie to the magical Land of Sweets.  The two-act ballet suite The Nutcracker was composed by Pyotr Tchaikovsky in 1892, and the predominant American choreography was created by George Balancine in 1954.  The Mercer County Library System offers a variety of print and video versions of the story which can be borrowed from our physical or virtual collections.  Here are a few selections; summaries are from the MCLS catalog descriptions.

The Nutcracker (picture book) based on the story by E.T.A. Hoffman, retold by AnnMarie Anderson.  After rescuing her Christmas nutcracker from an army of angry toys, Marie and her brother are rewarded by the nutcracker, now a prince, with a fantastic nighttime journey to a realm of dancing fairies, beautiful palaces, and wonderful things to eat.

Nutcracker Night (picture book) by Mireille Messier and Gabrielle Grimard.  The ballet The Nutcracker and New York City's David H. Koch Theater come to life in this onomatopoeic representation of a little girl's experience at the ballet.

George Balanchine's The Nutcracker - Music From The Original Soundtrack.  Music from a filmed version of the NYCB production.  Downloadable from Hoopla.

George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker (DVD).  Experience the wonder of New York City Ballet's iconic holiday classic on the big screen. Balanchine's stunning choreography shines amidst awe-inspiring set pieces, ornate costumes, and grand one-of-a-kind visual effects.

The Nutcracker (Playaway View).  Performed by The Royal Ballet.  Clara's Christmas Eve dreams come to life as snowflakes, sugarplum fairies, and her treasured toy nutcracker dance with her and her family.  Issued on Playaway View, a dedicated video media player.




- Sarah, Ewing Branch

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