It’s that time of year again — Christmas trees sit outside of hardware stores and string lights line rooftops. Cookies are in the oven and carols on the speakers. The holidays are here!
There are many things I love about December. Soft sweaters and fuzzy socks top the list, along with warm drinks and cozy nights. Behind the generalized jubilee, however, lies another reason for my Christmastime affection.
It’s Nutcracker season. It’s time for Sugar Plum Fairies and Snowflakes to grace almost every stage of the world, launching a yearly resurgence in the public’s proclivity for dance performance.
Nutcracker season is the only month of the year when my love for ballet aligns with the rest of the world’s. For 30 days, I revel in the same classical music as everyone else in Starbucks who hears it over the speakers. I see images of my beloved art form in the windows of Hallmark stores and on billboards on the side of the highway. I cherish this opportunity to share what I love so much with an audience that is so big. In a report from DanceUSA, “The Nutcracker” makes up an average of 48 percent of revenue for American ballet companies — that’s almost half their money from only one show.
The story of “The Nutcracker,” like many ballet classics, is very odd. A little girl bursts into joyful dance upon receiving a weird nutcracker doll from her even weirder Uncle Drosselmeyer. Later that evening, she encounters a pack of life-size rats led by an evil Rat King trying to attack her for reasons that are completely unclear. She then watches as her doll turns into a life-size soldier and she ends up killing the Rat King by simply hitting him once on the head with her ballet slipper. After the rats leave, she flies off into a land of sweets with her nutcracker, who has now turned into a prince.
Needless to say, no one goes to this show for the narrative. We are there for the beautiful music and Christmas themes, which is why the production has been successfully redesigned so many times.
This statement then begs the question: Which is the best? Which choreography, whose costumes and what version of the story is most effective?
Well, I quite like the Waltz of the Flowers by George Balanchine, and the Mother Ginger costume from Pacific Northwest Ballet. The San Francisco Ballet drops so much snow during their Waltz of the Snowflakes that it’s awe-inspiring to see the dancers able to keep moving without slipping. The Royal Ballet has a beautiful pas de deux (dance for two) in the first act and their Sugar Plum adagio at the end of the ballet is so well-matched to the grandeur of Tchaikovsky’s genius music that even watching it on my phone makes my heart swell.
But that’s just me. The true beauty of Nutcracker lies in its accessibility. By nature of its mass production, December is the best time of year to go to the ballet. Even locally, you can see the Academy of Russian Ballet at the Michigan Theater on Dec. 14, or there’s a performance supported by the Ballet Detroit Foundation at the Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre on Dec. 15. Randazzo Dance Company will perform their version at the Power Center on Dec. 22 and you’re only a quick Google search away from finding dozens more possibilities in Ann Arbor’s neighboring towns.
For many dancers, the Nutcracker will be their first or only chance to perform. For many audiences, it will be the first time they’ve seen a ballet. The intersection between these two firsts, underneath a flurry of snow and a dash of sugar plum sweetness, is often what makes this production so special.