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With performances throughout December, music heard everywhere, and even specific Christmas decorations, this ballet is an integral part of end-of-year traditions in many countries.

Between December 1, 2021 and January 2, 2022, the New York City Ballet will have danced 42 performances of The Nutcracker, almost one per weekday evening plus twice per day on weekends. Beginning at the end of November, the Royal Ballet in London gave around 25 performances of the same ballet, and the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow will dance it no less than 24 times between December 22 and January 6.

Nina Kaptsova in the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy with the Bolshoi Ballet, choreography by Yuri Grigorovich.

Choreographed in 1892 by Marius Petipa, creator of several great ballets in the classical repertoire, The Nutcracker tells the story of young Clara to whom her mysterious uncle Drosselmeyer gives a nutcracker that looks like a soldier for Christmas. At night, he comes to life and she will help him defeat the army of the evil Rat King. They will then cross a snowy forest to reach the Kingdom of Delights where the Sugar Plum Fairy reigns.

The second act consists of numerous entertainments, short dance scenes which represent different delicacies from around the world, such as Spanish chocolate and Arabian coffee. Then comes the famous pas de deux between the Sugar Plum Fairy and her rider, after which Clara wakes up at the foot of the tree, holding her nutcracker in her arms. A joyful, magical ballet suitable to be seen with the family, The Nutcracker is also famous for its music written by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, and as well known on its own as the rest of the work.

A more than well-established tradition

In many countries, no Christmas without the Nutcracker. In Russia, the ballet is performed every year by most companies.

But perhaps the Nutcracker craziest are the United States, where each company, from the most prestigious to the smallest amateur companies, dances its own version during the holiday season. There are many different productions there, ranging from the very classic one choreographed by Georges Balanchine for the New York City Ballet to that of the Brooklyn Ballet which cheerfully mixes classical, hip-hop and tap dance, including that of the Boston Ballet, whose bear is enjoying a little success on social networks.

It is also for many companies their main source of income: a study conducted in 2017 by Dance USA showed that before the pandemic, The Nutcracker represented on average 48% of the annual revenues of the companies studied. More than a Christmas tradition, The Nutcracker, as it is called there, is an essential source of funding for classical dance in the United States.

For dancers, it is a very busy period, to the point that we see the proliferation in the specialized press of “survival guides to the Nutcracker period” and advice for taking care of yourself and avoiding injuries, which are common due to fatigue. On her YouTube channel, former New York City Ballet soloist and now freelance dancer Kathryn Morgan says that in her first year as an apprentice with the company, she danced all forty-six performances, where for ballets, several casts normally alternate for the same role.

It is also in The Nutcracker that the young talents of a company often have their first roles, and it is a period which allows more established dancers to receive more money in the month of December, taking advantage invitations to come and dance the Sugar Plum Fairy and her rider in smaller companies.

Alongside this enthusiasm, Europe is an exception. The last time the Paris National Opera Ballet danced a Nutcracker was in 2015, and while the Ballet du Capitole in Toulouse staged a new version in 2017, it has not been performed since.

The European exception

Laura Cappelle is a sociologist specializing in dance, critic for several media including the New York Times, and edited the work New History of Dance in the West. For her, the fact that the tradition of the end-of-year Nutcracker has not taken hold in Europe is above all a question of repertoire: “I have the impression that in Europe, we have never had truly a reference version which has established itself in the choreographic landscape which reflects the magic of Christmas, which is a family show and which becomes a landmark for spectators.

Indeed, in the main French classical dance company, the Paris Opera, the version choreographed in 1979 by Rudolf Nureyev is danced, which is not in the same perspective as the traditional versions. “It is not at all as magical, it is a version which offers a psychoanalytic reading of the story, which is ultimately quite dark. The second act does not have at all the glitter-magic side of other productions. Thus, the story becomes a coming-of-age metaphor, and Clara takes on the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy alongside her date, performed by the same dancer as Drosselmeyer.

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