Here’s a true psychological challenge for you, worldly grown-ups: Can you remember what Christmas used to feel like, back when you were just an eager and credulous little kid?
That slightly mysterious, deeply delicious feeling is precisely what “The Nutcracker” ballet always aims to revive. The story starts in the recognizable reality of a Christmas Eve party, but at the stroke of midnight, hinted-at magic busts out in a big way. Before you know it, the stage is full of gingerbread men, warrior mice, tin soldiers, living dolls and, of course, a Sugar Plum Fairy.
“The story of ‘The Nutcracker’ depicts how wonderful the imagination of children really is,” said Chris Cannon, operations manager at Danceworks Performing Arts.
The dramatic first act seems designed to appeal to youngsters who love dance and youngsters who don’t.
“Amidst the party dresses and dolls, you find soldiers that battle and a Mouse Queen that challenges the Nutcracker to a duel,” said manager Hannah Pass of Columbia Dance. Then, the second act becomes a shameless showcase for dancing candies and other increasingly amazing creatures.
“In Act Two, the majority of the dances are under three minutes in length” and should be able to hold the attention of the youngest lap-sitters, Pass said.
“As to how it became a time-honored tradition in the first place,” she added, “we’d give the bulk of the credit to Tchaikovsky’s enchanting score, which goes beyond the sheer beauty of the music” to become an essential part of the tale itself. Calling this music catchy is putting it mildly. Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” score is really an anthology of the sweetest, poppiest earworms ever classified as “classical.”
Reality check: When the ballet was first staged in 1892, it wasn’t a hit. Some critics were confused by the thin plot and masses of magical characters. We suspect they needed a little booster shot of childhood magic. It wasn’t until the middle of the 20th century that “The Nutcracker” took off as a new Christmas tradition.
“It’s a timeless classic,” said Patti Lundgren of Northwest Classical Ballet. “There are so many different versions by different companies, you can see multiple ‘Nutcrackers’ and not see the same show twice.”