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.