It’s Sunday, which means that hopefully you’ve got some time on your hands today. If you do, may I suggest you take an hour and a half to watch some wonderful ballet? Because it’s time for Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker.
The Nutcracker is one of those things that has become so beloved in our lifetimes that it’s perhaps surprising to learn that it was not always so. The ballet was not a success in Tchaikovsky’s time, getting bad reviews for the apparently “blah” quality of its dancing and a general lack of an interesting story. Tchaikovsky’s music for the ballet was more highly regarded, but for many years The Nutcracker was one of those theatrical works that is infrequently staged, and becomes better known for an overture, an extract, or in this case, a suite of numbers pulled from the larger score by the composer. The Nutcracker could very well have gone the way of, say, the operas of Franz von Suppe, which are almost entirely forgotten as stage works but which live on, however tenuously, through the beloved status of their overtures.
It wasn’t until the 1960s that The Nutcracker, via a staging by the New York City ballet, started to cement itself amongst the Christmas traditions in the United States. George Balanchine’s choreography was essential, and the dancing of the great ballerina Maria Tallchief, combined to elevate an obscure, rarely-staged ballet by Tchaikovsky to the juggernaut that today is so beloved that many ballet companies earn a significant portion of their annual revenues through their Christmas performances of The Nutcracker alone.
I am sorry to say that I’ve never to this day seen a performance of the ballet, though I dearly want to and I hope to do so if COVID-19 ever regresses enough to allow a rebirth of the stage world. Until then, I’ll have to content myself with my memories of my four annual performances of the Nutcracker Suite when I was in college. I never hear that work without thinking, at least a bit, of Dr. Janice Wade. Not a bad legacy for her, I think!
Here is The Nutcracker by Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky, in a performance that is really quite wonderful. I just love the dancing and the art direction here. What magic! (I assume this particular video derives from a televised event, hence the ad-like matter at the beginning. The ballet proper starts a minute or so in.)
And if you’re short on time, well, here’s the Nutcracker Suite. But please try to find time to listen to the whole work, even if you can’t watch it.