8 Ways to Better Enjoy the Nutcracker

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Andrea Mohin / The New York Times / Redux

A performance of Alexei Ratmansky's version of The Nutcracker, in Brooklyn, NY

Though it was composed by a Russian and choreographed by a Frenchman in 1892, The Nutcracker is a decidedly American phenomenon. Somewhere in the mid-20th Century, the Tchaikovsky ballet caught on to become a stateside holiday staple.

From November to New Year’s Eve every year, dozens of ballet companies across the nation — from amateur productions in gymnasiums to the country’s finest dancers on professional stages — present the classic story. In every audience will be scores of little girls in pretty dresses dreaming of being a ballerina or a princess (or both), and lots of others squirming in their seats. (I’m talking about the adults. Mostly the men.) But there’s much to enjoy if you know just a little bit more before you enter the theater. So if you’re approaching a night at the ballet with a sense of dread or ennui, here are eight ways to know your Nutcracker and make the evening more entertaining (and it does not include, as one TIME colleague suggested, an open bar).

1. Listen Closely as You Watch

First, follow the sage advice of the Doobie Brothers and listen to the music.

Richard Wagner called opera a Gesamtkunstwerk, or total work of art. For him the music, the costumes, the scenery and the story were equal partners in spinning a great tale of adventure and drama. The same can be said for the ballet. There’s much more to a Nutcracker than dance. Any fan of Wagner also knows that his music easily stands alone. With Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, that’s especially true. There’s a reason his Nutcracker Suite was more popular than the ballet for several decades, and is now one of the best known pieces of music in the world. It’s darn good.

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Listen closely when you attend a performance, and you’ll hear the Russian composer’s mastery at orchestration. In the Nutcracker score, there’s delightful interplay between the string sections and the winds, and the harp arpeggios become an emotional anchor. Having composed two previous ballets, Tchaikovsky knew how to pace the dances and add the accents to illustrate action and put a button on scenes. You can also hear his knack for arranging, particularly in the dances in the second act. There are lovely evocations of musical cultures in them, highlighting different instruments: listen for the trumpets and castanets in the Spanish dance; the strings and clarinets assuming the voices of Middle Eastern oud and ney in the Arabic dance; and the buoyancy of the flutes for the mirliton dance by Danish shepherdesses. Not to mention the gentle French horns in the Waltz of the Flowers. And then there’s the ethereal tune for the Sugarplum Fairy. For that, you need to…

2. Meet the Celesta

During a trip to Paris, Tchaikovsky heard a new instrument that sounded so heavenly its inventor named it the celesta. In a letter to his publisher, Tchaikovsky asked to procure one (before his Russian competitors got one of their own), and he included it in a score for a symphonic poem called The Voyevoda. (That piece was only performed once; Tchaikovsky tore up the score the next day.) A year later, he would make the celesta the signature instrument for the Sugarplum Fairy. With its tinkling, bell-like sound, you’d think it was a xylophone or marimba, but the celesta is an upright keyboard instrument, about the size of a spinet piano. And you’ve likely heard it elsewhere. It’s featured in the opening of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. Merv Griffin used the instrument in the original Final Jeopardy theme for the quiz show. And John Williams chose it for Hedwig’s theme in the Harry Potter score in the first three films of that franchise.

The celesta plays elsewhere in the Nutcracker score. Listen closely to see if you can spot it.

Here’s a fun clip of an U.S. Army band keyboardist getting her first chance to play a real celesta on a symphony stage.

3. Gateway Tchaikovsky

Now that you’ve enjoyed the score to Nutcracker, there is much more to explore in the Tchaikovsky canon. You already know his 1812 Overture if you’ve ever seen July 4th fireworks accompanied by an orchestra (even though Tchaikovsky was celebrating Napoleon’s retreat from Russia, not America’s fight with the British). Valery Gergiev – Artistic & General Director of the Mariinsky Theatre, where the Nutcracker had its premiere – reminds audiences that Tchaikovsky was a man of the theater and dramatic colors appear in all his works.

There are six numbered symphonies and a seventh programmatic symphony called Manfred.  The sixth, known as the Pathétique, is Tchaikovsky at his most accomplished. There’s a violin concerto and another very famous one for piano. Aside from the ballets (the others are Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty), the sixth symphony is a great place to start as you branch out to Tchaikovsky’s other works.

Start here, and explore:

4. Know the Backstory

The plot of the Nutcracker is fairly simple. Godfather comes to Christmas party. Big dolls dance. Clara gets a nutcracker. Brother breaks nutcracker. Clara falls asleep. It’s midnight. The tree grows taller. There are mice. One is the king. The nutcracker fights them. Clara throws her slipper. It kills the king. It snows. Act II – Clara becomes a princess. Nutcracker is a prince. There’s a fairy. A Sugar Plum Fairy. There are dances, coffee, tea and chocolate. Clara goes home. Wakes up. Was it a dream?

But there are lots of questions. Who is this godfather Drosselmeier and why is he so mysterious? And how does he make life-sized dancing dolls (we’re thinking Blade Runner)? How did the prince become a nutcracker? Why are there so many mice in such a nice house? Many of these questions are answered in the original story The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, written by E.T.A. Hoffman in 1816. Drosselmeier is a clockmaker who dabbles in fantastic inventions. And his nephew is the one who is turned into a nutcracker-like figure by an angry mouse queen. Only the pledge of unconditional love from Marie (who becomes Clara in the Tchaikovsky version) restores the boy to his original state. Hoffman’s story was adapted (and softened) in 1845 by Alexandre Dumas as The Tale of the Nutcracker. That version became the basis for the ballet.

5. Suspend Your Disbelief

You have more questions. Is the tree growing or is Clara getting smaller? Can a well-hurled slipper really knock out a mouse king? Can that many children really fit comfortably under Mother Ginger’s dress? These are silly questions to ask. This is a dream, after all. And, like in The Wizard of Oz, you should pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. In the George Balanchine version at New York City Ballet, when the ballerina glides across the stage en pointe as if on an ice skate, you should not try to guess the mechanism and the pulleys that make it happen.  It’s love that’s making her glide. Don’t question it.

At almost any performance, you’ll be surrounded by children, and you’ll enjoy the show a lot more if you think like one. If former gymnast Cathy Rigby can continue to perform as Peter Pan at the age of 59 (talk about refusing to grow up!), you can manage to find a way to reconnect with your sense of childlike wonder and soar. And you won’t have to wear a harness attached to wires to do it.

6. Pas de Dude

The climax of the Nutcracker ballet features the Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy. This is the moment when the two principal dancers take the stage for a pas de deux (French for “steps of two”), lovingly moving to some of the most heartfelt music in the score. The pas de deux is often the best display of dancing in a production, and many stagings will replace the Fairy with Clara, the lead, who becomes a grownup princess and dances with her erstwhile nutcracker prince. (In the current production by the American Ballet Theater at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, this notion is beautifully, and uniquely, carried out.) In a pas de deux, the gentleman’s role is often to allow the ballerina to leap higher, suspend in air and pirouette longer. The attention is mostly on the lady in these dancing duets. But for a change of pace, watch the gentleman. He’s likely doing some major athletic feats and some fancy footwork to make the prima ballerina soar.

7. The Nutcracker pays for other ballets.

There’s a reason nearly every ballet company in America mounts a production of this holiday chestnut: It pays the bills. Your ticket purchase allows the company to do other work during the season. And just as the music is a gateway to more Tchaikovsky, the Nutcracker ballet can lead to an appreciation for non-holiday fare, and edgier modern productions. In February, Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet presents an evening of works called On the Threshold with choreography by William Forsythe and Christopher Wheeldon, and music by Arvo Pärt and others. In the spring, Pacific Northwest Ballet is doing a double bill of Stravinsky’s Apollo and Orff’s Carmina Burana and Atlanta Ballet is performing pieces set to the music of Johnny Cash.

8. It’s a reason to revisit Fantasia.

Suggesting that you look again at Disney’s 1940 film does not mean we forgive the animators for turning Stravinsky’s primal Rite of Spring into Jurassic Park. But Leopold Stokowski’s rendition of the Nutcracker suite is quite affecting. It slows the sugar plum fairy dance down to a dreamier pace, allowing sprites to roam nature at their leisure. And if you can forgive a 1940 caricature of Asians, the Chinese dance in a mushroom patch is great fun (though we suspect mushrooms of a different sort helped inspire some of the film’s wildly imaginative scenes and color palette).

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