Tchaikovsky for Tykes: The Nutcracker Ballet as Holiday Escapism
At a very young age, I had the experience of seeing the Nutcracker ballet live with my parents, my brother, and a few family friends. Christmas, or winter in general, in Phoenix, Arizona felt like an even larger myth than the paraphernalia used to describe the fabled time of year: green pine trees dusted with snow, candle lights, and a fat white man that invades your home. Phoenix was all cactus and dirt, with no snow to be found that wasn’t cotton-based. But sitting in the large theater looking down on the sprawling stage, I felt at that young age what I thought to be a glimpse of the intended purpose of the season.
Now, I have a lot of opinions on Christmas and Jesus, and the hypocrisy of it all. To me, family time and gift-giving are the purposes of the holiday. It’s a tangible approach, even if all you are giving is your presence or acknowledgment of what your family means to you. Jesus is, and always has been, a destructive fairy tale to me (I was raised LDS and happen to be gay, a fire and water mixture in my life). Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker ballet offered something other than Jesus. A fun and fanciful frolic of celebration, unencumbered by overt religious impositions that I felt when attending the LDS church around Christmas time. The Nutcracker ballet and particularly the music is something I can return to sans irreverent shame.
The music of the two act Nutcracker ballet was composed in 1892 by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, and is based on the novella The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, by E.T.A. Hoffman. Hoffman’s original is a much darker tale – remnants of which can still be seen in the more lighthearted ballet – especially in concerns to the fearsome Mouse King character. The more joyful version of the ballet starts with Grandfather Drosselmeyer on Christmas Eve giving gifts to his grandchildren, Clara and Fritz. Clara receives a nutcracker doll that Fritz, jealous of, smashes. Drosselmeyer magically fixes the doll then Clara falls asleep under the Christmas tree, only to enter a fantasy dreamscape. The rest of the ballet has toys coming to life, an evil Mouse King fighting the Nutcracker Prince, and enchanted forests with dancing fairies. Today, the Nutcracker ballet is a holiday staple, yet, when it premiered in St. Petersburg over a hundred years ago, the piece received awful reviews.
The music, the dancing, the costumes, the story are ripe for children, but much like the myth of Peter Pan, or other Disney-fied stories, still contain value well into adulthood. Ellen O’Connell, in fact, writes for Salon that, “Walt Disney used Tchaikovsky’s entire score in Fantasia in 1940. With the Disney treatment, the music became instantly recognizable to American audiences, and today maintains the rare distinction of being classical Christmas music that has nothing to do with Christianity.” In some part, Disney and the Nutcracker ballet set the stage for their own Christmas mythos. Their own interpretations of the holiday gave me a space to appreciate Christmas stories and the time of year sans the religious practice.
While the story of the manger is meant as something reverent and holy, Clara’s wild imagination takes another turn with something unfortunate – her brother’s jealousy-fueled destructive fit – and turns it into something beautiful. Whether it was all in her mind or not doesn’t matter. The window in which we – the audience – were invited into her dream was more than enough for my own thoughts as a young boy.
At only maybe 5 or 6 years old, in the middle of a desert, I will never forget taking turns being hoisted by my brother to peer over the railing, staring wide-eyed at the orchestra pit below in wonder between acts. It was like if we could see the source, that the music would continue to play; that this story of Christmas would go on.
Check out the full ballet, in the very theater it premiered in, below.
Listen to the complete magical music of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite for free here.