Visions of sugar plums dance in their heads

Ask any American child to name a famous ballet and odds are it will be "The Nutcracker." Over the past half century, the Old World Russian ballet has ingrained itself into the culture of the United States and Canada, performed by hundreds of communities in dozens of different guises each holiday season. For many, it has become more than a ballet - it is a holiday ritual, a cherished family tradition.

In part, this ubiquity has made the ballet almost as vilified as it is beloved. In the dance world, it's often considered more spectacle than substance, the trivialization of high art, the popular trend that has gotten out of hand. A flawed, lopsided ballet with a rather incoherent story featuring lots and lots of children, many with questionable skills, it's the ballet we love to hate, prompting critic Richard Buckle to quip that every holiday season we are all "one Nutcracker closer to death." But it's also the ballet world's "cash cow," the production that helps keep companies and schools alive.

And it's the one work of dance that brings millions of people, young and old, to the theaters year after year. For every cynic who ventures forth with clenched teeth, there are others who come with open hearts, ready laughter, and eyes that are ready to tear up at the first little cherub with a halo tipped to one side.

Dance scholar (and former Snowflake) Jennifer Fisher was so fascinated by the cultural phenomenon of the "The Nutcracker" that she wrote her PhD dissertation on the ballet. But as her research took her deeper and deeper, she realized she had material for a full-fledged book. "Nutcracker Nation" is Fisher's attempt to illuminate just how "The Nutcracker" evolved from its rather inauspicious beginnings in 1892 Russia to become the most popular ballet in the world, "performed anywhere someone has ballet shoes, a Tchaikovsky CD, and a dream."

Along the way, she mines the experiences of two strikingly different ballet companies - the esteemed National Ballet of Canada and the small amateur Loudoun Ballet of Leesburg, Va. - to explore how "The Nutcracker" has made its mark in North America. She interviews dancers, artistic directors, volunteers, parents, teachers, students, and audience members.

Fisher's documentation of the genesis of the ballet and its first performance is excellent. Though "The Nutcracker" was choreographed more than 100 years ago (begun by Marius Petipa and completed by Lev Ivanov), the full ballet was slow to make it to the New World. The first full-length American production wasn't until 1944, choreographed by William Christensen for the San Francisco Ballet. However, within a decade, the ballet had begun establishing itself elsewhere, most auspiciously in George Balanchine's version for the New York City Ballet.

Fisher calls "The Nutcracker" an "immigrant ballet" that gradually made its way around the country, finding a home in a variety of disparate productions, most of which incorporated local ballet students and provided a vehicle for community gathering. By the 1960s, "The Nutcracker" was booming in both professional and amateur productions.

With each new version, it also took on something new. There began to be as many uniquely customized "Nutcrackers" as there were productions. "Hulas were added in Hawaii, cowboys in Arizona, hockey players in Winnipeg, Cajun food in Louisiana." Donald Byrd choreographed a "Harlem Nutcracker" and Mark Morris created a wacky, satirical baby-boomer romp called "The Hard Nut." There have been political "Nutcrackers," cross- dressing productions, even a "dance-along" version sponsored by the San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band.

Fisher believes part of the ballet's enduring appeal lies in its ability to reflect revered themes and values at a time of year people are yearning for meaning. It echoes childhood dreams and rites of passage, providing a "small oasis of beauty, aspiration, and togetherness."

It also serves as a nonthreatening entree into the often rarefied world of ballet - "elite but accessible, serious but fun, decorative but meaningful."

For participants, the ballet offers even greater satisfaction. In interviews as well as in her own personal reflections, Fisher elucidates the ballet's value as a emotionally resonant experience in terms not only of artistic achievement but in community building. She also analyzes the ballet's main figures to investigate gender issues in dance.

Fisher's writing is engaging and readable, though circuitous and repetitive at times. Over and over, she seems to ask the same question: "Is it high art, popular spectacle, festival-like fun, hackneyed trip, just a way to earn money, or a resonant experience?"

The answer seems obvious. "The Nutcracker" is many things to many people. We don't really need, as she suggests, a new category for the ballet. It seems enough that it is simply a part of our lives each holiday season, year after year, in all its multiplicity of guises.

Karen Campbell is a freelance arts writer in Boston.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.