What ‘The Nutcracker’ taught me about the world

Last weekend, I went to see the Nutcracker, a holiday pilgrimage that by my estimate, I’ve participated in over 20 times. To say I love the production would be an understatement. As a child, I would pick out my “Nutcracker dress” rather than my Christmas dress. As a grown-up, the score’s ability to make me cry ranks only slightly behind the Charlie Brown Christmas theme song. I’m already counting down the days until next year, when my nephew will finally be old enough to join us in our annual trip to the theater. But watching the performance through the eyes of an adult with a collection passport stamps to my name, it does leave me with a few unanswered questions.

A quick plot synopsis for those who have never seen the ballet in any of its stage or screen permutations:

A group of friends and family gather together for a Christmas Eve tree-decorating party.  The local magician (or perhaps weird uncle…I could never tell) stops by to distribute toys to the kids, bestowing the resident golden girl Clara with a Nutcracker. She beams with pride. That night the doll comes to life, a toy army fights against some terrifying rats played by adorable kids, and everyone is whisked off to the magical land of sweets.

Nothing to complain about here in the first act. (Although it does bring up an interesting question: back in the days of parties without the aid of pop culture references, cheesy sweater contests, and smart phones, were dance-phobic wallflowers like myself simply non-existent or relegated to dark corners?)

It’s the second act where things really kick into high gear. Clara is given the hero’s welcome, and the magical land’s residents all greet her with performances tailored to an audience of one. Their numbers sound not unlike a roll call of things I’ve eaten on December deadline. The Chocolates. The Coffees. The Teas. The Candy Canes. The Gingerbreads. The Sugarplums.

But each calorie delivery system is also assigned a nationality, which is where things start to get confusing. Spanish. Arabian. Chinese. Russian. Save for a token gesture, a belly-dance reminiscent wiggle here, a coquettish wiggle of a fan there, most of the dancers’ moves do very little to portray their assigned country. To say I know next to nothing about traditional Chinese dance would be an understatement, but I’m willing to wager a guess it doesn’t all involve raising one’s index finger aloft—as every chorographer of The Nutcracker ever would want us to believe. (Spoiler alert: it doesn’t.)

I get it—ballet is a very specific, very stylized art form. (It’s also the celebration of the kind of wholesome, community-building athletic activity that I, a frequent pilates class absentee who types for a living, could never dream to attempt.) But, like any other art form it isn’t written in stone. We can—and should—introduce new textures and cultures into our beloved traditions. Couldn’t our world be made a bit more beautiful by seeing clear-cut cultural representations in an imaginary one? I’m reminded of seeing Baz Lurhman’s take on Romeo and Juliet as a teenager and realizing that Shakespeare’s text is still alive and well. Growing up in a small Los Angeles suburb, art, music, and The Nutcracker, made my world feel bigger. Now it’s time to stretch the borders even further.