Cute kids, antic elders, a dessert buffet that springs to life, all swirling to those gorgeous Tchaikovsky melodies — is it any wonder that “The Nutcracker” is one of the most popular ballets in the country, if not the world?
Yet when you dig into the Russian roots of this holiday classic, there’s a dark history that may change the way you think about it.
The fruits of a violent imperial system lie behind the work’s bright, bouncy “Chinese” dance, with its pleated fans and parasols, and its slow, seductive “Arabian” scene, with ballerinas in gossamer harem pants. At “The Nutcracker’s” premiere on Dec. 18, 1892, in St. Petersburg, the ballet paid homage to the czar and his empire, and within its affectionate tale of family celebration and childhood fantasy are the footsteps of a more brutal narrative. If you look at some of the forces giving rise to it, and that still live within it, “The Nutcracker” isn’t all that sweet.
“It was reflecting a czarist culture,” says Jennifer Fisher, author of “Nutcracker Nation: How an Old World Ballet Became a Christmas Tradition in the New World.” “What it is to have a master when you’re a servant and you’re supported by the czar, and royalty always has to be celebrated. The choreographers do know who’s paying the bills.”
To be clear, this isn’t about canceling “Nutcracker.” It’s about understanding the lived experiences from which the ballet sprang. They’re not entirely unique to Russia (consider America’s colonial past). But they prompt reflection on why they were carried into the ballet. Their traces circle back to an authoritarian system that foreshadowed expansionist events today.
“The history of Russia is a history of violence,” says Princeton music professor Simon Morrison, author of “Bolshoi Confidential: Secrets of the Russian Ballet from the Rule of the Tsars to Today.” “The reason Moscow became its head was through acts of incredible aggression. And a lot of the culture was imported, including ballet. Music came in via Ukraine and Poland — in some cases musicians and singers were kidnapped from Kyiv and hauled up to Moscow. There are horror stories all the way to the Far East.”
The Russian empire ballooned in the 19th century, swallowing up the Caucasus and Central Asia on its march into the Far East. One can only imagine the sorrow and worse produced by these occupations. Czarist control also bound “The Nutcracker’s” creators, of course. Tchaikovsky, for instance, was a favorite of Alexander III, and composed music for his coronation. Coronation rituals were deeply ingrained, and included a lavish banquet and a parade of foreign ambassadors paying homage. These rituals are transformed into child-friendly fun in “The Nutcracker,” where the second act brims with human depictions of imported delicacies from Russia’s trade routes. Chinese tea, Arabian coffee, chocolate from Spain and so on: They’re all served forth on the stage.
“This ballet is essentially a trading post, with a battle in the middle and then an imperial banquet,” says Morrison.