This holiday season, ballet troupes all over the U.S. will present that perpetual yuletide favorite, “The Nutcracker,” bringing the annual onslaught of dancing flowers and battling toy soldiers to stages large and small.
“It’s the one time of year where the leading dancer in the New York City Ballet has something in common with little Susan, who’s dancing as Clara in the local production,” says Jennifer Fisher, UC Irvine associate professor of dance.
Fisher, who sees at least three “Nutcrackers” every year, has yet to tire of sugar plum fairies and fighting mice because she’s looking at the ballet through the eyes of a scholar. A self-described “Nutcrackerologist,” she has studied the ballet from an ethnographic perspective, exploring why Americans “adopted and adapted” it from Russia.
She published a book on her findings: Nutcracker Nation: How an Old World Ballet Became a Christmas Tradition in the New World, which traces the evolution of “Nutcracker” from its 1892 premiere in St. Petersburg to its present-day status as a seasonal staple.
“In Russia, ‘The Nutcracker’ never caught on the way it did in the U.S. They never considered it a serious ballet because it featured children and make-believe,” Fisher says. “They just don’t get it. Here, you can never have too much fantasy utopia.”
The first full-length “Nutcracker” appeared in the U.S. at the San Francisco Ballet in 1944, and 10 years later legendary choreographer George Balanchine transformed it into a pop phenomenon. He added reindeer, tons of snow and a homey feeling to his New York City Ballet version. From then on, choreographers have tended to personalize their versions of “Nutcracker,” often setting it in the city where the ballet is being performed.
“‘The Nutcracker’ is the friendliest ballet ever gets,” Fisher says. “It symbolizes what we want to happen at Christmastime – not shopping at the mall but coming together in families and communities, celebrating the dreams of children and the child-like optimism of adults. Dancing together is one way of showing that people sometimes get along.”
Attending “Nutcracker” has become a cherished annual ritual, even among those who ordinarily avoid ballets. Parents dress up their children and turn a “Nutcracker” performance into a family event. For kids who love ballet, “Nutcracker” offers a chance to dance on stage, often for the first and only time. For budding ballerinas, or “bun-heads,” and for the maverick boys who join them, it’s the first step in a long career that will bring them back to “The Nutcracker” each year.
“It’s a rite of passage,” Fisher says. “You start out as a mouse or a bon-bon and work your way up to the snow scene, the waltz of the flowers, and dance of the flutes.” A lucky few land the coveted roles of Clara and the Sugar Plum Fairy or their partners.
Fisher herself “made it as far as a snowflake and a flower” as a teenage corps de ballet member in the Louisville Ballet.
“It was the only game in town back then,” she says, “and it literally set me in motion in the world — as well as suggesting an unexplored topic for my research later in life.”
After careers in acting and journalism, she pursued a doctorate in dance history and theory. She started reviewing dance instead of performing it, contributing to the Los Angeles Times for 10 years before joining UCI in 2003. While Nutcracker Nationdebuted five years ago, she still receives media calls each December asking about “the ballet we love to hate” and what it means in people’s lives.
“Nutcracker land” also influences her current research, which analyzes gender in the dance world. She has co-edited a volume due next fall from Oxford University Press called When Men Dance: Choreographing Masculinities Across Borders.
“America is a diverse place, so we need a secular ritual that can bring families and communities together to celebrate and reinforce values we tend to agree on, like the innocence of children and longing for adventure that ends in the kind of harmony Tchaikovsky gives us,” she says. “‘The Nutcracker’ is something we can all agree on.”