The Nutcracker. A timeless classic. A beloved holiday tradition. My favorite Barbie (TM) animated film. Hopefully no one thought they could get away without a reference to one of Tim Curry’s best roles as the mouse king. That would be silly.
The dancing, the music, the decorations – all of it is gorgeous, and watching the Atlanta Ballet perform early this month was the best way to kick-start those warm and fuzzy feelings that can only be described as Christmas spirit. I’m lucky to have an amazing mom who decided to take me on a trip to a performance at The Kennedy Center Opera House as an extra-special birthday present.
Christmas is a pretty big deal in my house, or at least it is for me and my mom. Other unnamed family members “complain” about the holiday music we start playing on Thanksgiving, but I’m pretty sure that’s all for show. Everyone wants to hear Bing Crosby sing 10 times a day for an entire month.
It being the big deal that it (rightfully) is, The Nutcracker live and in person is an experience I will treasure for the rest of my life. In the Atlanta Ballet’s version, choreographed by the Bolshoi Ballet’s own Yuri Possokhov, familiar characters frolic behind a transparent screen which project both lifelike and animated scenes onto the stage. Watching the screen lift to reveal the dancers during momentous performances gave the sensation of entering another dimension, a lucid glimpse into Clara’s – I mean, Marie’s – dream world.
As you can tell, this version mixes things up a little. Characters are given makeovers and some no longer exist, like the Sugar Plum Fairy. Gasps all around. Yes, the Sugar Plum Fairy does not exist in this ballet, but the dance still does. It’s given to Marie (her adult version danced by Airi Igarashi) and The Nutcracker Prince, a decision that is meant to give their relationship time to develop. It was a little confusing at first, and there’s a part of me that really wanted to see the Sugar Plum Fairy’s costume, but the dance between Marie and the Nutcracker Prince is climactic and reminiscent of a young girl’s fantastical idealization of romance. When you watch it, it feels like this was the way it was meant to be.
In fact, the ballet did an amazing job of making what might have been another stodgy Victorian Christmas gathering feel like a real party – complete with a questionable amount of alcohol and the ensuing mishaps bound to occur when you put the whole drunk family and their kids in one room. And of course, there’s the boisterous godfather who makes all of Marie’s dreams possible the moment he gifts her the nutcracker and leads her into battles, adventure, and fantastical realms. I can still hear the audience’s excitement clapping in time (or at least giving it their best effort) with the live orchestra during the Russian Dance. There wasn’t a silent moment in the entire performance. When the orchestra wasn’t playing, the audience roared with applause, whistles, and laughter. My hands got tired from all the clapping. It may have been excessive, but I can’t say it wasn’t deserved.
Wait a minute, you might be saying. No Sugar Plum Fairy, Marie instead of Clara, newfangled technology – this isn’t what I ordered! No, it’s better. And in a lot of ways it’s more true to the original E.T.A Hoffman story which features Marie and her doll, Clara. But that’s beside the point. The point is that The Nutcracker – no matter how it’s told -is a story of tradition, childhood, and celebration. A time when children get to have faith in the extraordinary, and like Marie’s godfather, we encourage them to believe in magical things. When young Marie (portrayed by Remi Nakano) wakes up and embraces The Nutcracker doll, even though her dream is over, she beams with happiness … and maybe a little bit of relief that she’s not quite so grown up just yet.