Nutcracker season can make you nuts—I think for most people, there comes that moment when you think you might explode if you hear a section of music again—but it’s seriously one of my favorite times of the year. There’s just so much nostalgia. My parents started taking me to see the ballet when I was three, and it’s been a holiday tradition ever since. But it touches more chords (in the best way!) than holiday cheer. For a lot of dancers, there are so many memories of rehearsing and performing The Nutcracker from childhood. My first experience on stage, audition, and solo were all Nutcracker roles. I’m sure I’m far from alone in having learned a lot about what it means to perform (and rehearse, and want parts, and work to try to get them) by doing progressively more challenging Nutcracker roles. My first solo en pointe ever was as Drosselmeyer’s dancing harlequin doll in the party scene. In my school’s version, the harlequin was brought on stage in a giant gift box. I was to crouch in the box and be lifted, to Clara’s surprise, by her dad and placed on the floor to begin dancing. My real-life dad is a huge fan of dance, but he’s not the most comfortable doing it. But that year, he volunteered to be Clara’s dad, which required him to actually dance on stage, so he could be the one to get me set up for that solo. When I see any version of The Nutcracker, I remember that and what it felt like to be that kid, who could not possibly have been more excited about what was happening.
I loved seeing American Ballet Theater’s The Nutcracker this year. It’s choreographed by Alexei Ratmansky and premiered in 2010. In this version, Ratmansky replaces the dancing parts of the Sugarplum Fairy and her Cavalier with grown-up versions of Clara and her Prince. The child and adult pairs first realize each other through an encounter of mirroring choreography, and then the adult versions dance, obviously in love. You’re not sure if it’s a dream or a promise for the future, but either way it strikes me as achingly beautiful. What if the couple doesn’t get to exist ever again once Clara wakes up? You sense that they know this possibility as they’re dancing, and they’re determined to make the most of the time they have.
I think part of what makes nostalgia so sweet is remembering, not just the repeated events of traditions, but also our own changing perspectives as we experience traditions year after year. It’s a beautiful, slightly bittersweet kind of meditation on life, time, growth, and what gets lost and gained in the process. Really all of the Nutcracker versions I’ve seen do this for me. But since I just saw it, the ABT production especially captures this by reminding the audience of the wish-promises we make ourselves—in childhood and the present—and that there are past and future “us-es” to whom we’re accountable.
Also, thanks, Dad!