Despite how ubiquitous The Nutcracker is around Christmas – its music especially, if not the ballet or story itself (in fact, some of the music even makes it into non-Christmas-themed commercials), I realise that it has been over 25 years now since I have actually seen the show. I was listening to an awesome parody medley where the unfortunate narrator keep going on about how the story “makes no sense” and it occurred to me that I could not remember it that well.
But then I thought about it, and when I later researched the plot online, I got it pretty much on the head.
Really, it is not a very complicated story. The ballet simplifies an otherwise convoluted German tale into a beautiful, visually-dazzling performance with catchy tunes. It is not about the story – it is about the dancing! The costumes! The elaborate sets! (Especially the giant Christmas tree in the first act, which was a novelty in late 19th-century Russia.) The music!
Thus the plot boils down to this: A young girl, Clara-Marie, gets a nutcracker doll from her mysterious godfather as a present on Christmas Eve. Her mean-spirited little brother breaks the doll, and when Clara-Marie falls asleep, she dreams that her doll has come to life and is fighting an evil Mouse-King. Thanks to her, the Mouse-King is killed (or just defeated, depending on how child-friendly the production is trying to be) and the Nutcracker Prince takes Clara-Marie to his kingdom, which is made of candy. There, all of the candy dance for her as they laud her heroism.
Basically, the whole story is about a young girl who has a sugary dream (having likely consumed lots of sweets at the party) and imagines her doll coming to life. Either he is a wholly fictional character whom she dreams up as a fantasy man, as young girls often do, or he is a representation of her godfather’s son whom she met at the party and developed a precocious crush on. (It depends on the production, just like whether Clara-Marie is called Clara or Marie.) Not much to parse here!
This is a ballet – it is about telling a story through dance and music. Part of the reason that it is seen as child-friendly is because of its relatively simple plot, Christmas theme, young protagonist, and bright colours. Oh yes, and the dancing candy.
Like most young girls, I took ballet classes and briefly dreamed of being a ballerina. As a result, I went to The Nutcracker at least a couple of times before the age of 8. It was the unofficial start of the Christmas season, usually taking place in the middle or latter half of November. The studio where I took ballet also housed the theatre where The Nutcracker was performed, so there was lots of excitement around it. I can certainly see why it appeals to young children.
I also think it presents a great opportunity for children to learn to appreciate live stage performance. The story is simple and relatable to them. Compared to most ballets, it has no romantic triangles, tragic love stories, or evil spells. It is quick-paced and dazzling, so it holds attention. I went to see Swan Lake when I was six and had to leave at the intermission because, well, I was tired and the show was boring. Then again, half the fun of going to The Nutcracker as a child was getting all dressed up. (It still is, if Facebook posts by my friends who are parents are anything to go by.)
The music itself is still wonderful – Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky at his best, despite his not being all that fond of it. (He would probably be slightly embarrassed to find out that his most enduring work is The Nutcracker and that it is being used to advertise garden centre and furniture clearance sales.) However, because it is everywhere at Christmas, it does feel a bit cliché. It is in holiday film trailers, countless commercials, Christmas concerts, music compilations, and more. Now I have to watch clips of the music with the dancing to get an idea of what the music is supposed to represent and truly appreciate it. Even still, it can be hard not to think of slapstick comedy or commercials.
However, the music is still used so much because it is enduring. Partly due to marketing, yes, but also because it is enjoyable. Great music and a great story – it is still relatable to audiences (for the most part) over 120 years after it was composed.
It’s about a little girl, her doll, and candy.