Essay: On ‘The Nutcracker’ and ballet’s diversity problem

Illustration by Becky Laff
Illustration by Becky Laff

The Nutcracker

The Englert Theatre ($16-$18)
Fri., Dec. 4, 7:30 p.m.
Sat., Dec. 5, 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.
Sun., Dec. 6, 2 p.m. and 6:30 p.m.

Paramount Theatre ($87-$128)
Sat., Dec. 5, 2:30 p.m., 7:30 p.m.
Sun., Dec. 6, 2:30 p.m.

The Nutcracker has a wild and complicated history. The original creepy tale by E.T.A. Hoffmann, “Nussknacker und Mausekönig” (“The Nutcracker and the Mouse King”), is turning 200 next year, and among its striking differences from the better-known ballet production are a seven-headed mouse king, a string of violent and bloody occurrences and the marriage of a seven-year-old girl. This is par for the course for Hoffmann, who was well known as a fantasy and horror writer in his era. His most famous tale, “Der Sandmann” (“The Sandman”), was a psychological horror notably scrutinized in Sigmund Freud’s essay “Das Unheimliche” (“The Uncanny”) in 1919.

The core of The Nutcracker’s tale remained largely the same in its second iteration, a re-imagining by French writer Alexandre Dumas, of The Three Musketeers fame. Published in 1844, Dumas’ Histoire d’un casse-noisette was much tamer than Hoffmann’s. The violence was mostly eliminated—the result, one legend supposes, of Dumas telling the story at a children’s party, on demand, before writing it down. Dumas’ warm and joyful version served as the basis for the next stage of The Nutcracker’s history: The ballet.

In 1892, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker premièred in St. Petersburg with a storyline simplified further by Marius Petipa, a Frenchman and the premier maître de ballet at Russia’s Imperial Theatres, who pitched the tale for adaptation. The production received what could generously be called “mixed” reviews. The music was, without question, a success, then as now. Most of the iconic music we now associate with the story came from Tchaikovsky’s commission. (“Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” is truly ubiquitous, of course. Also unforgettable are “March” and “Waltz of the Flowers.”) It has spanned genres in inspiring adaptations and arrangements, from Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s 1960 jazz interpretations to “A Mad Russian’s Christmas,” a heavy instrumental medley by prog rock band Trans-Siberian Orchestra. In 2014, a capella group Pentatonix released their version of “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.”

The original choreography was judged far more harshly. Petipa, who had collaborated with Tchaikovsky two years prior on the hugely successful ballet adaptation of The Sleeping Beauty, was ill during much of the latter process; it’s believed that most of the choreography fell to his assistant, Lev Ivanov, whose skills fell short of the public’s expectations. A number of productions by other choreographers spread across Europe and the United States through the first half of the twentieth century. It wasn’t until George Balanchine choreographed it for the New York City Ballet in 1954 that The Nutcracker ballet truly became a tradition.

Since the 1960s, The Nutcracker has become mainstay Christmas entertainment, with schools and companies across the U.S. staging annual productions, often to sold-out audiences. Here in the eastern Iowa, Dancer’s EDGE studio in Hiawatha presented the ballet on Nov. 21, Nolte Academy of Coralville produces its annual shows at the Englert Theatre on Dec. 4-6 and Orchestra Iowa partners with Ballet Quad Cities at the Paramount Theatre in Cedar Rapids on Dec. 5-6.

For many audience members, seeing The Nutcracker is an essential part of their pre-holiday preparations. For many company members, it represents a progression of skill and ability, the youngest dancers getting their first ever stage time in the smallest roles, then graduating to more intensive parts as they improve over the years.

My own experience with The Nutcracker has a similarly wild and complicated history. I remember my first time seeing a production: My mother took my friend and me to see it sometime in late elementary school. The ballet itself isn’t what sticks out in my memory so much as our pre-adolescent giggling at the male dancers in their tights. Still, for whatever reason, the production had an impact on me. The music became part of my cultural lexicon—a touchstone of the holiday season.

When I finally saw the ballet as an adult, I was thrilled, but taken aback. Its beauty was impossible to deny, but there were social issues at play that had escaped me as a child. Ballet has an elitist reputation as being art only for the well-to-do, and not particularly diverse. That’s an image the form has been trying to fight for years—George Balanchine himself had an integrated model in mind when he founded the School of American Ballet in 1934. He provided opportunities for dancers like Maria Tallchief, a Native American prima ballerina who originated his Sugar Plum Fairy.

Despite his and other early efforts ballerinas and their audiences remain disturbingly monochromatic. Diversity in ballet has been a popular topic lately, spurred in part by this year’s appointment of Misty Copeland as principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre (ABT), which is considered America’s national ballet company. She is the first black woman to hold that role in the ABT’s 75-year history. Copeland is a steadfast champion for access, working extensively with ABT’s Project Plié, an educational outreach program dedicated to increasing diversity that partners with the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, where Copeland first began to dance.

Viewing The Nutcracker, for better or worse, places these issues of access and diversity in stark relief. It’s not just the story’s pervasiveness in cultural consciousness; the second act offers a series of dances that are enough in themselves to give one pause. Tchaikovsky names them for their inspiration: the Spanish Dance, the Arabian Dance, the Chinese Dance, the Russian Dance. The composer’s inclusion of a dance honoring his own country should be enough to reassure audiences that these are intended as homages, not appropriations, but intent and consequence don’t always overlap, and living in a world that is far more diverse than the one in which the piece was created, one is again reminded that many ballet companies don’t include enough dancers to match the dances’ variety.

It causes me discomfort, as both an audience and community member, to consider whether the diversity of a company—particularly its children—is comparable to the diversity of our community. What are we doing, and what can we be doing better, to promote access to theater arts across our cities, to break down that presumption of elitism? Can we inspire a wider variety of children to want to dance, merely by increasing their exposure? Can we improve access to training for those who otherwise might not have a chance to learn?

None of these questions will be answered with clarity before we all inevitably enjoy the wonder of another Nutcracker production this winter. They can, however, hover in the backs of our minds as we move forward into the holiday season, beginning our annual contemplation of how to better the lives of those around us. As the U.S. grapples with issues of diversity, so can we, even while appreciating the ballet’s stunning beauty.

Genevieve Heinrich is a writer, an editor, a malcontent and a ne’er-do-well. Occasionally, she acts and sings. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 189.

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