It’s the time of year people pretend “The Nutcracker” ballet is a fun holiday activity. If you’re one of the lucky few who never sat through this weird production involving multi-headed vermin, living toys and one unsettling old man, here’s a recap.
Picture a festive house in the late 1800s with dozens of dancing guests, skipping children and happy servants, basically, it’s the “12 Days of Christmas” come to life. Young Clara and her obnoxious brother, Fritz, are the ballet version of little kids crazy-excited for Christmas. (The ballet version differs from real life because ballet dancers don’t speak, where real children don’t shut up from Thanksgiving to Christmas morning.)
Dr. Drosselmeyer, Clara’s super-creepy godfather, appears at the party dressed like Count Chocula and presents her with a wooden nutcracker. Clara is over-the-top ecstatic, for reasons I’ll never understand. I guess children had a different relationship with nutcrackers in the 19th century.
Clara’s brother is SO jealous of the gift (right??) that he flings the nutcracker across the room, because really, what else can you do with a nutcracker? Clara’s despondent. She wraps his broken wooden body in a sling (like ya do) and falls asleep on the couch, snuggled to her nutcracker.
During the night, the Rat King and his minions sneak into Clara’s home, because why not? She wakes up and freaks out. The nutcracker turns into a handsome soldier and wields his sword to defeat the rodent army.
“Nutcracker! You’re my hero!” screams Clara, if people in a ballet could talk.
“That’s Prince Nutcracker to you, peasant,” he sniffs in pantomime, before taking her to the magical Land of the Sweets ruled by the Sugar Plum Fairy who has an unclear but definite sexual relationship with Prince Nutcracker.
While in the Land of Sweets, Clara watches dancers from Russia, Spain, China and Arabia (?) as they perform in a culturally stereotypical fashion. Prince Nutcracker sits next to Clara cracking walnuts with his jaw like some football jock.
Mother Ginger shows up in drag with a skirt full of tumbling children, then there’s a flower waltz and dancing pipes and tons more pirouetting before the Sugar Plum Fairy takes the stage to make everyone else look clumsy and insipid. It’s all performed to Tchaikovsky’s musical score that stays in your head through January.
In the end, it turns out it was all a dream, as most stories involving young girls and adventure turn out to be.
I told you that story to tell you this story.
When I was a gangly 11-year-old, still full of hope, I auditioned for Ballet West’s “The Nutcracker.” As the audition drew nearer, I practiced every spin and arabesque I’d ever learned. I played the music all day until my dad walked into my room, removed the album from the turntable and smashed it into pieces with his bare hands.
I showed up at the audition with my hair pulled into a bun so tight it closed my eyes. An elegant dancer performed several steps that we practiced for a few minutes, then we performed for the judges. It was over so quickly. As dancers were given roles as soldiers, party goers and mice, I held my breath.
But my number wasn’t called. I was heartbroken.
Maybe decades later I’m insulted that the ballet judges couldn’t see my awkward talent. Or maybe I’ve endured enough versions of this tale to see it’s craziness. And if “The Nutcracker” is your family’s favorite holiday tradition, ignore my opinion. It’s all a dream anyway.