The holiday season is the time to unleash an annual barrage of seemingly endless productions of The Nutcracker ballet, courtesy of Russian composer Tchaikovsky. The Nutcracker has long been a staple of the Christmas season - - like uneaten fruitcakes and stale candy canes. Every wannabe dancer who can don a tutu and maintain a vertical position somehow manages to land a role in the The Nutcracker. The sheer amount of holiday productions is staggering - - from backyard regional poverty row performances to big city lavish extravaganzas.
Don't get me wrong. I absolutely love The Nutcracker. It contains some of the most delightful holiday music ever written. I never tire of it no matter how many times I've seen it - - but it has been done to death in more rancid productions than anyone cares to remember. Many performances seem merely obligatory, with no sense of style or imagination. The dancers mime their way through the synthetic snow with less enthusiasm than somnambulists.
In truth, despite the deliciously delightful musical score, there's not very much for the principal dancers to do. It's all visually pleasing, but you won't see any breathtaking balletic feats - - like the 32 fouettes that Odile sweats out in Swan Lake.
Fortunately, the music more than compensates for sparse virtuoso footwork. Tchaikovsky perfectly captures the magical spirit of Christmas Eve and the spectacular journey into a snow-drifted candyland dreamscape.
There are rare exceptions to mediocre productions. The 1989 Bolshoi production with revised choreography by Yuri Grigorovich is superb - - as are the principal dancers Irek Mukhamedov and Natalya Arkhipova.
I know the music by heart, having once been a ballet rehearsal pianist in L.A. I still have the musical score and still occasionally play the entire ballet on the piano. My cats are my sole audience and they refuse to dance.
Gelsey Kirkland in her luscious prime
The best Nutcracker that I've seen recently is Helgi Tomasson's production with the San Francisco Ballet. It aired on PBS a few years ago and is still in their active repertoire.
A photo of the original 1892 production of The Nutcracker.
Some of these "snowflakes" look slightly past their prime, and probably consumed too much bread with their borscht.
My own personal theory is that, after sitting through a tedious opera, the audience was less than enthusiastic about sitting through an entire ballet. But it's only a theory.
Here's a crude rehearsal tape of my own arrangement of the Pas de Deux from The Nutcracker ballet. This is a drastically abbreviated rendition. My original one is over five minutes long.