“The Nutcracker”: an Objective Review and Viewer’s Guide for the Culturally Deficient
So my son Zane appeared in his first ballet. He was a soldier in a local production of “The Nutcracker”. And just like how having a vegetarian girlfriend makes Jules Winnfield pretty much a vegetarian as well, having a kid in a ballet pretty much makes me a ballet watcher.
As such, the following is my objective review and viewer’s guide of “The Nutcracker” from the perspective of someone who’s never seen a ballet, worn a monocle, attended a fox hunt, or had occasion to unironically utter the phrase “well I never.”
First off, two things should be noted about the adult dancers in a ballet, and I use the term “adult dancer” advisably, considering what I am about to say. Number one, they’re all pretty good looking. And number two, they all wear tights. And not much else. That is to say, the men might don costumes of some sort, but all the hems stop just shy of the nethers. The women wear what could generously be called skirts, but they look more like those old-timey ruff collars you see in paintings of kings. Other than that, for the men and women alike, it’s just tights and a whole lot of unmistakable biology. This means that, regardless of what shade of the rainbow of genders you might fall into, you’ll find yourself at least curiously diverted throughout the show.
The really strange thing about this is that no one talks about it. And if you bring it up yourself, thinking you’ll be the brave one to mention what everyone else is thinking (perhaps with a complimentary appraisal of the Rat King’s “dance belt”) you’ll find it’s considered bad taste.
A lot of things are considered bad taste at the ballet. More on that later.
At any rate, I’m pretty shocked that this attire passed muster back in the prude ages, but maybe that was the point and the dancing was just there to give the performers an excuse to be on stage. Sort of like how people “read the articles” in Playboy.
Gives “high culture” a whole new perspective, I admit.
Anyway, here’s a tip for first timers to any ballet: pretend you are the only human in attendance at a dog whistle concert. If the rest of the audience starts to applaud, just applaud along with them. You aren’t going to know why, and that’s all right. Trust the audience. Clap lightly. Don’t overdo it. Standing up and pumping your fist is frowned upon, literally.
So, The Nutcracker begins with what looks like a party scene at the richest house in the old-timey world. There are butlers and maids and scullery urchins scrambling all over the place, as overseen imperiously by the Lord and Lady of the house (I know these terms because I once overheard a conversation about Downton Abbey– absorbing culture wherever you can is another helpful tip). There are children here and there, and more of them appear as guests arrive at the party. A lot of air-kisses happen at this point. And here we meet the main focus of the story, a girl named Clara. I only know this because the program tells me.
That’s another thing about ballet: no one says anything, ever, leaving the viewer to figure out what’s happening via guesswork, secret glances at the program, and constantly asking the people around you what’s going on.
The latter, unfortunately, is also frowned upon.
Clara, being the star of the show (along with the Nutcracker himself, who is yet to appear) is fawned over by everyone. She dances around a bit and everyone looks on adoringly.
Then, a grown man shows up wearing a cape. The cape might raise your hopes, but trust me: this isn’t Batman. This man is apparently a sort of magical, mysterious Uncle with an adoring eye on Clara. In our production, he was a wee bit on the plump side, wore a white powdered wig, and moved around the stage like a stork playing hopscotch. He was surely meant to give off an air of worldly-wise charm and doting mystery. It is imperative that you cling to this perception, no matter how much he might instead come across as the sort of creepy bachelor Uncle who has way too much candy in his pockets and an unhealthy fixation on children.
The uncle gives Clara a wooden nutcracker. This is received as a marvellous gift rather than, as might be expected, a kitchen tool for preparing nuts. The Nutcracker is shown proudly around the room. The Nutcracker is painted to look like a soldier with extremely prominent teeth and jarringly bulging eyes. Some nuts are cracked. Children actually fight over the nuts.
People dance. This happens a lot.
Soon enough (although not soon enough) everyone leaves. The lights dim, indicating night, and Clara takes the Nutcracker to bed with her. Creepy Uncle Magic Cape (not his actual name) appears in Clara’s bedroom. Again, this is not presented as cause for alarm, a fact that seems to offer far more social commentary about life in Victorian times than the writers may have intended. Creepy Uncle Magic Cape slips the Nutcracker from Clara’s sleeping arms, performs some sort of magic spell on it, and then places it back in her bed.
Again, this is not presented as cause to ring up the local constabulary, and suggesting so will not endear you to your fellow audience members.
Next, a whole load of rats scurries into view. Clara’s bedroom is overrun by them. The King of the Rats waves a scimitar. Clara awakens in terror and attempts to escape, but the elements of her bedroom slide mysteriously off-stage, left and right, leaving her in a nightmare of swarming rats. Fairly dark stuff, here. Fortunately for Clara, the Nutcracker comes alive. UNfortunately for your ability to sleep ever again, he still has monstrously prominent grinning teeth and the sort bulging painted eyes that say “I am tortured by this curse you call life”.
The Nutcracker attacks the Rat King. A contingent of soldiers appears, one of whom is twelve and devastatingly handsome and looks a lot like a young version of me. He is a tour de force and completely steals the show, even if, inexplicably, this is not one of those moments that the audience begins to spontaneously applaud. The dashing young soldier with the extremely awesome father performs his part expertly, bringing the viewers to tears of joy if they know anything about anything, and then, even when his part is over, the performance for some reason continues to go on and everyone gets extremely bored and starts checking the time on their phone every few minutes.
The Nutcracker has apparently saved Clara from the rats and now, to celebrate, they watch some dancing. I, of course, watch Clara and the Nutcracker, since they are the stars of the story. A bunch of lady dancers flit about, doing their thing, and if your performance is half-way decent, there will be snow falling all around them. You’ll wonder how the dancers manage not to get the fake snow in their eyes. If you watch closely, some of them probably will.
And then the curtain comes down and the house lights come back up.
Do not get your hopes up! The ballet is not over. This is called an intermission and it usually lasts about ten minutes. Ours lasted more like twenty, until an announcer’s voice spoke up, informing us that they were having technical issues and that they apologized for the delay. I commented knowledgeably to the people around me that the “technical issue” required that a tremendous amount of blood be sprayed off the stage. This was frowned upon.
Eventually the curtain went up again and the performance resumed.
A series of dances occurred, each one apparently themed after nationalistic stereotypes. There was a sequence with some female dancers dressed like Jasmine from Aladdin. This was followed by half a dozen dancers dressed like an all-female mariachi band. Eventually, a guy in drag appeared on-stage wearing an enormous powdered wig and an even more enormous hoop skirt. He looked a bit like a cartoon version of Marie Antoinette, so I assumed this was supposed to represent France. He flipped up his skirt and eight children scampered out. The children danced, and then were collected again under the man’s hoop skirt.
Helpful hint: if you learned anything from your observation about Creepy Uncle Magic Cape, you will assume that, in Victorian times, it is not considered strange or unhealthy for a man in drag to harbour up to a dozen children under his skirt. Perhaps it was the best way to keep him or the children warm. Perhaps homeless children regularly gathered under hoop skirts, unbeknownst to the wearers, as a form of temporary housing. Consider this an anthropologically interesting observation rather than another reason to summon the old-timey equivalent of Child Protective Services.
Clara and the Nutcracker observe all of this with avid interest, seated on a small throne. As the main characters of the story, I made sure to keep my focus on them, despite the temptation to let my attention wander to the dancers. Clearly this was intended by the writers to be a test of the audience’s devotion to Clara’s story. I did not mean to disappoint them, or be disappointed.
It did become apparent, however, that the story, as it were, occurred exclusively in the first half of the performance. As Clara and the Nutcracker looked on, more and more dances sprang up before them. This went on for quite some time, and I began to suspect that they were repeating some of the same dances again and again. Helpful hint: this is not what is happening, and it will not be considered helpful for you to interrupt the ballet to suggest that the dancers check their programs.
The performance did, eventually, end. Clara and the Nutcracker watched everything until, finally, they arose from their throne. Having been paying very close attention to them the entire time, I was gratified that their story was picking up again. The Nutcracker produced a small gilded sleigh, which he pushed over to Clara. She climbed into it and the Nutcracker began to push it slowly off stage. Clara waved extravagantly back to the dancers, all of whom were gathered on the other side of the stage, and the dancers waved extravagantly back.
I waited. Would Clara wake up again, finding that the entire sequence had been a dream? Would the Nutcracker still be alive? Would Creepy Uncle Magic Cape still be there, having watched her in her sleep all night long, as any good and not at all sick and twisted Uncle apparently did back in Old Timey times?
No, actually. The curtain came down and the performance was over. And that’s when I realized: Clara hadn’t been sleeping at all. This was probably an hallucination brought on by the ravages of some fatal Victorian disease. Scurvy, perhaps? Or rickets? Either way, the final goodbye was not the Nutcracker escorting poor Clara out of dreamland but into the cold embrace of her own doom.
Dark, dark stuff! Especially for a cheery Christmas tradition. And yet, it put everything else into perfect perspective.
This downer of a realization, however, was immediately interrupted by the curtain call. As the stage lights came back up, all the adult dancers pranced onto stage again. As one, they bowed. The audience applauded. Then, groups of two or three performers came forward at a time. These bowed again. The audience continued to applaud. Then, the performers gathered in long line at the front of the stage. They bowed. The audience applauded some more.
“Bring out the kids!” somebody, probably not me, shouted. After all, when someone is forced by the ballet company that asked their son to be in their performance to sell ten tickets at thirty bucks a pop, it seems reasonable to assume that, conservatively, exactly one hundred percent of the people attending are there primarily to see the kid whose parents sold them the ticket.
The adult dancers bowed again. The audience applauded some more.
“Bring out the kids!” somebody who sounded suspiciously like me shouted.
They did not bring out the kids. The adult dancers bowed several dozen more times. Helpful hint: if you stop applauding and glare at the stage with unbridled scorn, no one will notice. At the ballet, being frowned upon only goes one way.
After the show, the adult performers went backstage to do whatever they do between performances.
I went down to the room where the young performers were being corralled until the next show, scheduled for two hours later. Several dozen other parents were there as well, gathered just outside the doors of the room, which had newspaper taped over all the windows to hide the children in their various stages of costumage. I assumed all the other parents were also there to heap praise and glory upon the dashing young soldier who had so stolen the show in the middle of the first half. Unfortunately, the “director” (those are scorn quotes) had determined that no one could see that soldier between performances (or, incidentally, any of the other child performers).
My attempt to start a riot petered out fairly quickly. Helpful hint: loudly suggesting how much more awesome your kid was than all the others will not garner a lot of support for your riot attempt, regardless of how true such an assessment may seem to you.