Nutcracker Nation: How an Old World Ballet Became a Christmas Tradition in the New World

by Jennifer Fisher

Review by Jeff Kuo

November 28, 2003

Dance scholar Jennifer Fisher relates an exercise in teaching dance history to aspiring teenage ballet dancers at a summer intensive. They were asked to imagine themselves programming a season for a fictional "American Ballet Company." After 10 minutes they came up with (an all ballet program, naturally) - Balanchine's "Stars and Stripes," "Western Symphony," "Square Dance," de Mille's "Rodeo," even the Joffrey "Billboards." Nothing European like "Giselle" or "Sleeping Beauty." And of course "The Nutcracker" for Christmas.  Writes Fisher:

But that's a Russian ballet I [Fisher] pointed out. "Well," she [the student] said, cocking her head, '"not really. I mean, technically it's a Russian ballet, but it's like, more here now. And it's changed and everything, so it's kinda more of an American ballet now" (pg. 78).

How did "The Nutcracker" of Tschaikovsky and Ivanov get to be so American?  In what is essentially a booklength monograph based upon her doctoral dissertation, Fisher provides not only an impressively wide overview of the manifold manifestations of the holiday warhorse, which other books have done such as Jack Anderson's The Nutcracker Ballet (Bison Books, 1979), but also a serious attempt to account for this familiar, recurring phenomenon.

In five chapters interspersed with personal reflections, Fisher reviews the ballet's history, its themes and motifs, and even its ideological subtext. We learn, for example, that the ballet's Christmas commodification can be traced back to the 1950s, particularly the 1957 and 1958 national broadcasts of the New York City Ballet's Balanchine production. Though it was only one of several competing Christmas narratives, the nation seemed to find something irresistible about its evocation of a nostalgic Victorian domesticity and ballet's impeccable aristocratic lineage.

But where Fisher departs from customary treatments of the ballet (which consider the ballet either as primarily an aesthetic object, an object of historical inquiry, or as a professional rite of passage) is her essentially sociological approach. Though she does treat "Nutcracker" as Art, History, and a job, in her hands, the ballet is a social process most of all. Fisher researched two case studies through extensive interviews with participants and audiences - a community production, Loudon Ballet of Leesburg, Virginia - and a highly professional company, the National Ballet of Canada in Toronto.

For some, the ballet achieves the status of a "secular ritual" whose formal and thematic correspondences consecrate and legitimize ongoing social processes - dreams of domestic harmony, professional legitimacy, utopian ideals of community, etc. Sometimes even the language surrounding "Nutcracker" partakes of an essentially ecclesiastic discourse - as in those who go "religiously," feel its "spirituality," or who follow its "calendrical" celebration or spectacle. Through encounters and interviews, Fisher finds dancers, audiences, and production staff realize time and again that the idealized community the ballet imagines is not just a choreographic effect but a social one as personality differences, professional rivalries, and community criticism are subordinated to the delivery of an event that is much communal as artistic.

But, the nation of the "Nutcracker" is not an untroubled hymn celebrating an essentially bourgeois world ethos. Indeed, the book's title Nutcracker Nation teases the reader with an implied promise of an ideologically oriented analysis. Yet if the subtitle "How an Old World Ballet Became a Christmas Tradition in the New World" suggests a post-colonial process of cooption and assimilation, it could only be ironical given the status accorded to "Americanisation" in cultural and media studies. Some productions incorporate jazz, tap, hip-hop, even bharata natyam. Cowboys, transgenders, even Death have made appearances in specialized productions. It is perhaps the Christmas spirit of post-modernism past, present, and future.

I find that it is in her treatment of ideology that Fisher disappoints - but only in relation to how much she has accomplished.

...there are times when The Nutcracker's Old World point of view wears thin, especially when it comes to the Arabian (Coffee) and Chinese (Tea) dances. They are often so broadly drawn and lean so consistently on stereotypes, I call them "choreo-cartoons," which range in tone from innocuously cute to irresponsible and denigrating (pp. 96-97).

Fisher comes up with the only somewhat convincing rationale for the apparent Chineseness of the upward finger pointing of Chinese Tea though her suggestion that the Tea girls' lightly skimming steps and the Tea males' petite batterie allude to genuine folk forms and characters such as the Monkey King of Chinese opera seem somewhat stretched. The analysis of gender roles goes better in that Fisher touches upon critiques varying from Ann Daly, Evan Alderson, Sally Banes, and Cynthia Jean Cohen Bull (aka Novack).

Near the end of Nutcracker Nation, Fisher relates a suggestion given to her when she accepted an assignment to review local "Nutcracker" productions for the region's major newspaper.

Clearly among newspaper critics, The Nutcracker was seen as hardship duty. "Don't worry, I like Nutcracker," I told him. "I've become fascinated with the idea that it's a seasonal ritual." There was a pause. "Yes, well remember this," he said briskly, "you're the dance critic, not the ritual critic" (pg. 169).

Nutcracker Nation goes a long way towards making the case that some ballets attain a significance for which the traditional elements of the theater are merely a point of departure. This indeed is a case made in literary and cultural studies by such stalwarts as Janice Radway for the romance novel and Ien Ang for soap operas (both of whom Fisher references). Not to understand dance as a material practice, to relegate it to the status of a merely auto-telic object, is perhaps to miss some of what gives it its significance and its ability to pull us (or at least some of us) into the theater time and again.

Though Nutcracker Nation is based upon a scholarly product, Fisher's doctoral dissertation, it is written in a fluid and easily read style. Its wide ranging topics and thought provoking analyses should provide much interest and not a little entertainment irregardless of whether one loves or hates the annual holiday treat/punishment.  And, for those who would like further reading there are 21 pages of notes and over 120 references ranging from Pierre Bourdieu, Edward Said, Stanley Fish to Susan Leigh Foster, Sally Banes and Edwin Denby.

Nutcracker Nation: How an Old World Ballet Became a Christmas Tradition in the New World. By Jennifer Fisher. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2003. 230 pp. illus. ISBN 0-300-09746-8.

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