I’ve been paying more attention to ballet recently. I don’t have much of a choice since my five-year-old daughter began lessons and has quickly become obsessed with her own pas de chat and rond de jambe. In addition to her classes she spends many evenings (along with her twin brother) watching the DVDs of classic ballets we’ve borrowed from the library. Among her favorites are Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, Romeo and Juliet and of course, The Nutcracker.
Ah, the seduction of The Nutcracker — it is indivisible from Christmas and yet when you take a look at the content of the actual ballet, it really has very little to do with the holiday. In fact, there is more Christmas in A Charlie Brown Christmas (which gives a shout-out to the Gospel of Luke) than in The Nutcracker where the meaning of the holiday is confined to trees, presents and winter-fairy type themes. For a Grinch like me, Charlie Brown should be viewed with much more suspicion than The Nutcracker.
So why does The Nutcracker bug me so much? Perhaps because it has become emblematic of a seductive, commercialized, shallow Christmas that seeks to draw us all in through its saccharine allures? You think I’m cynical for seeing it like that? Come on, Tchaikovsky only wrote it on commission and in the end, “really detested the score.” The cynicism is entirely on the part of the product itself. But allowing for a moment of self-criticism, my distaste for The Nutcracker is wrapped up in an internal and ongoing debate I have in which my relationship to Christmas is either that of an alcoholic to booze (even a taste is too much and destructive) and that of an anthropologist (not my culture, but I can learn and grow from observing and perhaps limited participation). Am I worried that my daughter, having danced the dance of the sugarplum fairies will abandon her Jewish identity? Realistically, if I’ve done my job as a Jewish parent, that isn’t very likely. But when your competition for Jewish continuity is an anthropomorphic nutcracker along with a fat man handing out gifts, it’s easy to descend to that level.
So I was relieved to see that I wasn’t the only one with Nutcracker issues. Sarah Kaufman writing last month in the Washington Post (and re-hashed today in the NY Times ArtsBeat Blog) offers a withering critique of The Nutcracker, not so much as a work of art (though she does accuse it of suffering from “pervading tweeness”), but as Exhibit A of everything that is wrong with American Ballet.
Because “The Nutcracker” can turn a profit, it can account for as much as half of a ballet company’s total annual performances. Chances are, the other, non-“Nutcracker” half of a company’s season relies on a couple of standards and too few new works of consequence. And most companies cannot bring in enough funding to exist without relying on “Nutcracker” sales.
This all sounds pretty Scroogish, but I’ll be straight with you: While I have grown tired of “The Nutcracker,” I don’t hate it. I don’t discount that the ballet brings great happiness to many — even, off and on, to a critic. What I do regret is “The Nutcracker’s” ubiquity, the way it stifles any other creative efforts in dance during the holiday season. Most of all, I regret its necessity as an income source.
All arts organizations (our own included) struggle with the balance between artistic ambition and predictable, profitable product that puts butts-in-seats. But Kaufman argues that the example in ballet is a kind of worst-case scenario in-which one product has become so bankable that it has crowded out the marketplace for anything more ambitious and in the process created a dumbed-down audience that doesn’t aspire to more. The result is that attending The Nutcracker has become more a part of the civil religion of Christmas than the artistic experience for which ballet at its best can become. Most damaged in this vicious cycle, Kaufman argues, are American dancers who can spend an inordinate part of their careers dancing in various Nutcrackers — while their European counterparts work from a broader repertoire that allows them to develop more varied skills that allow them to fill the leading roles, even in American companies!
What brings these two things together is that I want more for my daughter on both counts. If she loves ballet as much in 15 years as she does now, I’d like to think there is an expansive world of artistic possibilities waiting for her. On the same note, I’d like my daughter to have a Jewish identity that opens her up to the world, not sets her apart (as her curmudgeonly father is wont to do). The Nutcracker is no more a threat to Jewish identity than any other part of the civil religion America has built around Christmas. Surely she can be taught to admire that which is admirable and draw clear boundaries between her appreciative observation and participation thereof? If only The Nutcracker weren’t so…Nutcrackerish.
Filed under: Arts, Jewish Living, Kids and Parents Tagged: | A Charlie Brown Christmas, arts management, ArtsBeat Blog, ballet, Christmas, December Dilemma, Jewish identity, jewish parenting, New York Times, Sarah Kaufman, Tchaikovsky, The Nutcracker, Washington Post