writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, New York edition

"Twas the Night Before Christmas..."

By Nancy Dalva
copyright © 2003 by Nancy Dalva

"Why," a dance publication asked recently, "is The Nutcracker so popular?" The answer is that it is so popular because so many people love it. The reason for this lies, I think—leaving aside the fan club factor, to wit, the many thousands of relatives who have bought and continue to buy tickets to see young family members perform in it—that many of us first see The Nutcracker as children. Then, we see ourselves in the characters, and we see the kinds of things we imagine when we play wrought large. Toys come to life in the night! As children, we project ourselves into the ballet.

So it was with my first Nutcracker, which luckily for me was George Balanchine's. Off I went with my doting mink-clad grandmother, so perfumed with Bellodgia that even the delicious cookies she carried in her handbag tasted of carnation. In the theater, I saw a dream come true, and in a truly sublime way: I saw enacted a dream I didn't know I dreamt, the dream of a perfect evening: It is a winter's night. Instead of their usual custom of leaving me at home in my blue quilted bathrobe with my bratty little brother and the dog, my parents-–dressed up as the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier--for a change recognize not only my goodness and valor, but that my brother has wronged me, and that I need a chiffon nightgown. Through swirling show, they take me to a party being given in my honor. Magical entertainments transpire, and my parents dance together with a perfect attentive decorum that makes me feel secure, and that promises that marriage, which lies in my future, will be a highly satisfactory arrangement. How keenly did George Balanchine, who had danced the Prince at the age of fifteen in St. Peterburg, express the pleasures and desires and anticipations of childhood!

But a deeper allure than identification and one more lasting still is the allure of recurrence. This is why we go back. Familiarity, content. Again and again, the same story, the same music, the same scenery. While certain sophisticated balletomanes may, out of a seasonal lack of anything better, go for the differences—this debut, that Dewdrop, this new version–for the rest of us, the best thing about the Nutcracker is the sameness. There's comfort in repetition, and reassurance. This is true when we are very young, and true when we are grown up. (In between, comes the teenager.) The same way that children want to hear the same bedtime story night after night, their parents want to see them snug in bed night after night, or, when they are older and out of sight, to believe them so. For children the Nutcracker is a story of adventure. For their elders it is a story of sameness, blessed sameness. Sameness, as we can see all too well now, is the opposite of terror.

When it came time to take my own child to the Nutcracker, I had on my hands not a Marie, but a Fritz, albeit a thoughtful, serious Fritz unburdened by a snooty older sister. I took him to Robert Joffrey's Nutcracker, at the City Center, where I had so often gone with my grandmother. This particular Nutcracker is very dear, with about a hundred local children included, though not as principals. For each divertissement, a pair of children costumed to match the adult dancers comes on stage and sits down to watch them with charming attentiveness, modeling for their cohorts in the audience the appropriate and desirable behavior for the moment. Although the ballet is oddly cobbled togethe—Jofffrey, dying, was issuing directives from a hospital bed—it has a lovely coherence. Like Balanchine's version, it is deeply felt. Embedded in the telling are correspondences to Joffrey's own life. Christmas was his favorite holiday; Victorian New York a favorite place with a favored set of manners; the stage was his home, and his heart. When, at the ballet's end, his girl heroine leaves the land of enchantment, she departs not with her Prince, but with her magician. She leaves with Drosselmeyer! And how she leaves. At the back of the stage, a hot-air balloon lands, and in they step into the pendant gondola. How can you not see Dorothy? The Wizard? Metro-Goldwyn- Mayer! Robert Joffrey, immigrant son, Americanized ballet's Christmas rite and left us, waving good-bye and saying, "I pulled the levers behind the curtain; I was the wizard; Merry Christmas! Farewell!"

How wonderful. If you are a child, you see yourself growing up and going off on an adventure, up, up and away! If you are a parent, you see your wandering child on the way home to you, returning as if by magic. After we saw the ballet, we went backstage, saw the flies, the wings, the stage hands at the controls. We were allowed to step into the gondola, at best a fragile craft. I collected a handful of stage snow—just paper, with a fire-proof coating. Confetti! You can save it, but what's the point? You're meant to toss it to the winds, and watch it take flight.

Originally published:
Volume 1, Number 13
December 22,, 2003
Copyright ©2003 by Nancy Dalva



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This weeks' articles


Mindy  Aloff's Letter from New York

The Balanchine Celebration
New York City Ballet:
A Veteran and a Raw Recruit
by Mindy Aloff

Heart and Soul
by Mary Cargill

Kid Stuff
Cas Public's If You Go Down To the Woods Today
by Susan Reiter

San Francisco Ballet:
New Wheeldon (Rush)
by Rita Felciano

New Tomasson (7 For Eight)
by Paul Parish

Possokhov's New Firebird for OBT
by Rita Felciano

Moscow Festival Ballet and Scott Wells
by Paul Parish

Hamburg Ballet's Nijinsky:
Nijinsky—Lost in the Chaos
by Clare Croft

NijinskyMadness and Metaphor
by Alexandra Tomalonis

Nijinsky and the Ballets Russes
by George Jackson

Batsheva: Breaking Down Walls
by Lisa Traiger

Ronald K. Brown/Evidence
by Clare Croft

Choreographers Showcase
by Tehreema Mitha

Zoltan Nagy
by George Jackson






Mindy Aloff
Dale Brauner
Mary Cargill
Nancy Dalva
Gia Kourlas
Gay Morris
Susan Reiter
Alexandra Tomalonis(Editor)
Meital Waibsnaider
Leigh Witchel
David Vaughan


The Autumn DanceView is out:

New York City Ballet's Spring 2003 season reviewed by Gia Kourlas

An interview with the Kirov Ballet's Daria Pavlenko by Marc Haegeman

Reviews of San Francisco Ballet (by Rita Felciano) and Paris Opera Ballet (by Carol Pardo)

The ballet tradition at the Metropolitan Opera (by Elaine Machleder)

Reports from London (Jane Simpson) and the Bay Area (Rita Felciano).

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last updated on October 7, 2003