Know Your Nutcracker

story by Barbara Milhizer

It’s a holiday rite of passage. Few holiday traditions encapsulate the wonder and possibility of the season as completely as The Nutcracker does. I don’t even know what a sugar plum is, but just hearing those first bars of stealthy plunks makes me crave one. Initially not a success, the ballet – choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov with musical score by Tchaikovsky and first performed in St. Petersburg in 1892 – saw a resurgence in popularity in the late 1960s and has been enchanting audiences ever since. It is so beloved; it has become a revenue staple for major American ballet companies, often accounting for 40% of their annual ticket sales.

In A NutShell: Act I opens with a festive Christmas Eve party at the Stahlbaum house. Guests are gaily dressed, helping to trim the enormous tree. Children gather and receive presents. Suddenly, a mysterious figure appears – a magician and toymaker. He delights all with a dance of lifelike dolls. He presents the children of the house, Clara and Fritz, with a wooden Nutcracker. Much to Clara’s dismay, Fritz breaks the toy. After the party winds down and the family is asleep, Clara returns to check on her Nutcracker. The clock strikes midnight, and Clara sees the magician/toymaker. Suddenly the room is transformed and gingerbread soldiers fight off mice, led by the Mouse King. The Nutcracker becomes animated and life-size, leading a charge of tin soldiers. During the battle, Clara distracts the Mouse King with a well-aimed slipper long enough for the Nutcracker to stab him. As the mice retreat, the Nutcracker is transformed into a prince, leading Clara into a forest charmed by dancing snowflakes.

Act II finds Clara and the Prince in the Land of Sweets, home of the Sugar Plum Fairy. The Prince tells of his escape and transformation, thanks to Clara, who is honored with dances from all over the world: Spain, Arabia, China, and Russia. Even Mother Ginger and all of her children appear for a dance. Clara and the Prince are crowned rulers of the Land of Sweets and carried off in a sleigh. Next we see Clara asleep under the Christmas tree with her toy nutcracker. She awakens, thinking it was only a dream. But the crown is sitting beside her. Was it real after all?

Something for Everyone:The first notes instantly conjure images of frosty air, hot cocoa, a roaring fire and the crinkling of wrapping paper. It’s no wonder it has become a holiday tradition for so many families