Miniature Overture

I take Nutcracker very seriously.

I’ve either seen it live or performed in it sixty-one times, and that will soon become sixty-two. I’ve seen eight (soon to be nine) choreographies live and probably that many more in recordings. I wrote undergraduate admissions essays about Nut rehearsals, I’ve spent countless hours analyzing casts and performances, and I once wrote more than thirteen thousand words about the role the ballet had played in my life. It’s important to me.

And I have preferences, y’all. Here are a few things I could talk about for hours:

  • None of this Drosselmeier’s nephew, who is the Nutcracker, being at the party nonsense.
  • To go with that, the Nutcracker is the Sugar Plum’s partner in the grand pas.
  • Snow Pas, please.
  • Also Dewdrop.
  • Clara is a child, by which I mean, she is danced by a child. If the other party girls aren’t en pointe, Clara is also not en pointe. Part of the whole idea is Clara being an ordinary seeming girl who shows extraordinary love.
  • Do. Not. Touch. Tchaikovsky’s. Score.
  • Drosselmeier traveling to the Land of Sweets often comes off creepily.
  • The Mouse King is not a comedic character.
  • Don’t dance during the overtures. Don’t walk across the stage during the overtures. The overtures are sacred.
  • I feel less strongly about this one, but I like seeing Clara back in her house at the end but with some ambiguity in whether what happened was a dream or not.

As a caveat to all of that, though, I have deeply enjoyed — loved, even — versions that committed many of these sins. The version I grew up dancing in, the choreography of my heart, moved the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy to near the beginning of Act II and cut the Tarantella. (And of all the musical sins, that last is the gravest in my mind. The Tarantella is the best part of the ballet; how dare you?)

(Okay, okay, maybe Russian is the best part of the ballet. But Tarantella is a very close second.)

The recorded version I have watched most, the one I finally get to see live this year, is Balanchine’s choreography. Drosselmeyer’s nephew is at the party and is a child, so the Sugar Plum has a different Cavalier. There is no Snow Pas. There is additional music, the Dance of the Sugar Plum is moved, and the Tarantella is cut. The Mouse King is definitely played for laughs. Seriously, it does almost everything on my list of wrongs, and yet I still watch it every year. I’m still absolutely delighted about getting to finally see it in person. I will be messaging one of my friends at intermission and after the show, flailing over the tiniest details.

Because it’s Balanchine’s Nutcracker. It’s not the Nutcracker in my head or my heart or my muscle memory, but it is the American Nutcracker, deeply influential on the other choreographies performed here and on ballet culture throughout the nation. It (along with the perfection of Tchaikovsky) is how this ballet became beloved in the US despite a story that barely holds together and a below-average amount of interesting dancing. It is an essential part of the story of this ballet I love.

But even without all of that, it would be Nutcracker, and that alone is magical enough.

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