Mari Explains It: What's Going On In The Nutcracker

When people are like, “Oh, I love the glockenspiel in the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy,” I smack them down: THAT IS A CELESTA.
Publish date:
December 20, 2014
holiday, holidays, ballet, weekend, The Nutcracker, Holiday Memories

It’s That Time of the Year and you know how I feel about it.

I’m getting a bit sentimental because those of you with kids are starting to take your babies to see their first ballet -- The Nutcracker. It was mine, too, and I get emotional just hearing some of the music (oh, gawd, the dance of the snowflakes and the children’s choir, wahhh!). Tchaikovsky knows how to push my buttons. Ask a simple question about this beloved ballet and get ready for a lot of opinions.

I’m not sure how I accumulated all this Nutcrackeralia, but I know enough to say go Gelsey Kirkland or go home. American Ballet Theatre, Balanchine youknowhatimsayin’ I mean, c’mon. When people are like, “Oh, I love the glockenspiel in the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy,” I smack them down: THAT IS A CELESTA.

I have two sisters, and we all kind of became ballet nerds for a time. My dad bought us records of ballet scores and we flounced around in our costumes made of bathing suits and scarves. We didn’t grow up with lots of money, but at one point my mom enrolled us in classes. The story goes that she stopped buying milk so that we could afford to go. (I grew to be 5’1”, so thanks, mom.)

(Years later, I asked her later why she sacrificed so much: “Because you walked like a gorilla.” Oh, well.) Nevertheless, those years with Miss Rosemary (“Stretch your leg like you are alluring”) made a big impact on my life. The Nutcracker was the gateway.

Cue millions of twirling eight-year-olds at this perennial ETA Hoffman-based cash cow. But it turns out this is not a universal cultural reference! So I’ll break it down for you, and please suspend your disbelief:

The plot:

First there’s the party. Adults dance. We meet Clara (sometimes called Marie), a little girl who loves Christmas.

Then the creepy uncle shows up and hands out presents and a show of animatronics. For some reason, he’s coy about giving Clara her gift and it turns out to be a big nutcracker in the shape of a soldier, which is a very weird gift for a little girl if you think about it. It’s like, “Hey, kid, have a cheese grater! It looks like a squirrel!”

The kids play within strictly enforced gender roles. Clara gamely pretends that her nutcracker is as good a doll as the rest of the girls’. To make things worse, Clara’s asshole brother breaks the nutcracker while leading a pretend cavalry attack, and creepy uncle has to “fix” it by tying the head back on with a handkerchief. As if. Clara babies the nutcracker, ugh, why does this toy suck so much?

Then it’s bedtime, but Clara sneaks into the living room to see the tree once last time. She may or may not hallucinate that the tree grows to a giant size. This part is a traditionally a big crowd-pleaser, maybe not anymore because theatre effects < CGI.

Clara is like, “Magic!” But then the rat king comes out with his scary rat army.

Then fighting, nutcracker army is useless, so Clara throws her shoe at the Rat King and he dies. FEMINISM.

But then the nutcracker becomes a boring prince and he takes her away to a fantastical land of candy, which should be a really good time, but no. Here, various personified candies of various nationalities perform brief dances for Clara and the Prince. The entertainment reflects the cultural knowledge within a certain historical context, which is semi-racist national stereotypes: uuugh, the “Chinese” tea dance! The “Arabian” coffee dance! “Spaniards”! “Russians”!

You got your sugar plums, a bit of a denouement where Clara and the prince dance an age-inappropriate pas de deux, she goes home, and we’re done.

Some people, including myself, see this as a metaphor for the glories of girlhood replaced by the passive boredom of womanhood -- the only saving grace is that you get to have sex. With a nutcracker. Wooooo.

So what’s the appeal of this thing, exactly? For one, many actual children are usually included in the cast, so it’s aspirational. (That’s how they hook you, ballet stage parents.) Then, when the fun part is over, they pummel you with tulle. While the second act has way less action and character, at least the pieces are short so no one has a chance to get bored.

I have grown up to be a fairly non-girly woman. I am no longer fooled by the fantasy of a ballerina in a tutu. But this ballet is so oddball, and the narrative is kind of creepy in hindsight and it is so ingrained in my young memories that I will always, reflexively, love it.