Now that Thanksgiving is over, my wife and I have started decorating for Christmas. We’ll do the typical, expected things – a tree in front of the window, garland on the mantle, various treasured pieces here and there, and outdoor lights and figures.
But one side of the living room will feature something different, as it does every year. The stereo cabinet will be covered and surrounded with my collection of nutcrackers, some thirty of them by now, in all shapes, sizes and colors.
Just about every ballet company presents “The Nutcracker” at this time of year; it’s a holiday tradition from Moscow to Radio City Music Hall in New York. And it was “the event” in our community in northeastern Ohio when my daughter started dance class – which is how I got involved in ballet.
At its simplest, “The Nutcracker” is the tale of a Christmas party, a gift, and a child’s excitement-induced dream. Costumes, presents, and treats featured at the party re-appear in the dream as living characters. One might say the young dreamer simply had too much fun.
But in another sense, “The Nutcracker” is a coming-of-age story similar to “The Wizard of Oz.” In the familiar Judy Garland movie, Dorothy is rather flighty and selfish. But after her journey to Oz, she awakens to a new appreciation of the people around her, a new awareness of real life and seemingly a new resolve to live responsibly.
After dancing in it a few times, I began to see the same thing in “The Nutcracker.” Clara opens the ballet as a typical little girl, squabbling with her brother, the center of attention among her friends, shyly attracted to the mysterious young man with her godfather, focused on a new toy.
After the party is over, Clara sneaks downstairs to retrieve this toy, a painted wooden nutcracker in the shape of a soldier. She falls asleep, and in her dream, crumb-stealing mice become giant servants of the Mouse King, battling gingerbread soldiers led by the Nutcracker Prince. She saves his life, and in return, he takes her to the Land of Sweets.
In many versions of the ballet, the character of Clara switches at this point from a girl to a young adult dancer. It’s this change which signals to me a subtle development in the character’s self-awareness.
In the Land of Sweets, grown-up Clara and her Nutcracker-Prince are celebrated with a series of dances by the party’s confections-brought-to-life. But soon, the moment is over and as the dancers present their final gestures, they begin to fade into the background.
There is a sense that both Clara and the dancers are reluctant to see the end of this dreamlike state, that Clara wants to remain in a land of no consequences (or dental problems) but as a grown-up.
Of course it cannot be so. She awakens as her young self, back in her post-party home, with a damaged-but-repaired toy in her arms. Yet she has seen something of her future, perhaps, and the inevitable conflict between growing up and avoiding adult responsibility.
At least, one might read that into the vague conclusion of the ballet; since ballet is wordless, the ending is not so clear as in “The Wizard of Oz.” But I began to wonder about that sense of implicit character development and how it might apply to other favorite stories and familiar experiences. After all, it’s often said that fiction illuminates the larger truths of human life.
Do such holiday stories beckon us into a mental realm that is merely familiar and comforting, providing a sort of emotional hot cocoa to warm us without expectations? Or can something like “The Nutcracker,” with its open-ended conclusion, offer us a hidden opportunity not only to enjoy life’s party but to ponder how we might grow up?