Nutcracker Nation

In books, creativity, culture, education, kids by Michael Tiemann

‘Tis the season, and like so many cities in America, the Nutcracker is playing to full houses here in Raleigh. I used to hate it when my parents would take me to the ballet, usually because my mother or somebody she knew was playing in the symphony and she was unwilling to leave me at home to watch something better on TV. But over the years my appreciation for music developed, and though my 10 year old self would never ever have believed it, I now enjoy listening to classical music and I find the ballet to be one of the most stimulating musical experiences to be found anywhere. What happened?

As the book Nutcracker Nation explains, the credit is due to the positive effects of subversion, emigration, immigration, collaboration, and just about every other act that the patriarchal authority wishes to marginalize, vilify, or criminalize. The story begins with the almost heretical proposition of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, which was to compose a ballet for, and featuring children. At the time, ballet was one of the most refined, revered cultural icons of Russia, and the notion of involving children, either as members of the audience or as members of the production, was unthinkable. And yet how might children grow up to be adults who could truly appreciate this institution if never given any instruction when their imaginations are still operative?

Yet for all Tchaikovsky’s genius and subversity, The Nutcracker withered in the unreceptive Russian climate, and might never have been known had not a Russian immigrant, George Balanchine, found a way to blend it into the cultural melting pot that once characterized so much of North America. In this new world context, this strange ballet took form and character from every subculture it touched, variegating into forms that range from Hula (in Hawaii) to Hockey (in Canada). And while we can surely find those “proper” ballet-goers among us who would have nothing to do with such rich (or too-rich) cultural adaptations, it was these very adaptations that connected people with this form of art and its much deeper and more formal family members.

Today, The Nutcracker is ubiquitous in America and remains obscure in Russia. Who is the richer, and who is the poorer? I believe the great success of this ballet has been to meet the audience at least half way, to show them and share with them the grace, beauty, and power of ballet, and to ultimately educate one to appreciate that which would otherwise be all but inaccessible to most of us. And when some stand up and say “NO! It shall not be performed that way!” ask yourself this: who are they to preclude a cultural awakening that may take one hundred years to evolve? Who are they to limit the potential and creativity of a culture they have never and will never know? The Nutcracker is a wonderful case in point where liberal freedoms and outrageous creativity served both the public and the art. Let us not think it an exception, but a sentinel telling us “there is more to come, if you let it.”