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Is 'The Nutcracker' Part Of The Fabric Of Christmas?

Principal dancers Janessa Touchet, left, and Cervilio Miguel Amador perform during a dress rehearsal of the Nutcracker at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati on Dec. 17.
Principal dancers Janessa Touchet, left, and Cervilio Miguel Amador perform during a dress rehearsal of the Nutcracker at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati on Dec. 17.

With Christmas time, as one writer said in The New York Times, comes "Nutcracker" time.

There are probably more than a dozen professional productions of The Nutcracker here in California alone. And who's to say how many local school and amateur productions there are, such as the truly delightful one I saw at the Berkeley Ballet Theater?

You can hardly overstate the extent to which The Nutcracker belongs to the fabric of American Christmas ritual and celebration.

The Sugar Plum Fairy is right up there beside Ebenezer Scrooge; and the basic outlines of E.T.A. Hoffman's story of Clara and Fritz — homeless children looking in at the window of a wealthy family as they celebrate Christmas — are as familiar as the opening lines of Clement Clarke Moore's poem A Visit from St Nicholas.

As is so often the case with pillars of tradition of this sort, it can almost seem as if they have always been there. The Nutcracker belongs to Christmas, like Santa, Rudolph and Charlie Brown.

Which is exactly right. Just as Charlie Brown and Rudolph, and even Santa himself, came to Christmas rather late in the game, so there was no Nutcracker Christmas pageant before Balanchine's 1954 New York City Ballet version of the distinctively unsuccessful original St. Petersburg production of Petipa and Tchaikovsky.

Now, it is true that Balanchine's Nutcracker was, we can say, conceived in anachronic nostalgia; that is, it was made new as if it were old. He drew on his memories of having seen restagings of the original 1892 version when he was a child. Petipa himself had drawn on his memories of childhood Christmases in his original creation of the Hoffman libretto.

But what is remarkable is that it is not just this new ballet that seems somehow a bulwark of tradition and memory and Christmas itself. Ballet itself, as an art form, seems, well, it seems to belong to our shared cultural background. It is classical, after all.

But, in fact, at least in the American context, this isn't true, I have learned from Jennifer Holmans' remarkable history of ballet Apollo's Angels.
What use did America have for the dances of the Tsars and Kings of Europe?
Not much!

Ballet in America is an invention of the 20th century. Russian immigrants fleeing revolution planted the seeds in the soil of vaudeville. It was there, beside chorus girls and dancing elephants, that ballet took root in America.
But it was only after WWII, and with the onset of the Cold War, that America gave ballet the resources to really develop as an American, as a modern, art form. And it did, as as Holman describes in Apollo's Angels.

But that's a story for another time.

Now, it's Nutcracker time.

And we Americans are not alone in remaking the past through art. That may be one of art's basic functions.

Alva Noë is a philosopher at the University of California, Berkeley, where he writes and teaches about perception, consciousness and art. He is the author of several books, including his latest, Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2015). You can keep up with more of what Alva is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @alvanoe

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