Nothing says holidays for me better than hearing music from The Nutcracker. The ballet, with a score composed by Peter Tchaikovsky, debuted 127 years ago today. The critics and audience hated it and Tchaikovsky died less than a year later, never knowing what a classic it would become and how many versions of it would be performed world-wide.
Based on the book The Nutcracker and the Mouse King by E.T.A. Hoffman, the ballet version is performed by the most acclaimed dance companies and local dance troupes. Recently, I attended a performance by Evanston Dance Ensemble (EDE) 2, a middle school dance company comprised of students from Dance Center Evanston. I went to see my granddaughter and thoroughly enjoyed a sampling of their work in production. But when the march music from The Nutcracker ended the show, the audience broke into loud applause and I was in my happy place.
When my children were very young (too young, probably) we took them to see the Joffrey Ballet production downtown. I had prepped them by reading a watered-down version of the original story, as the Hoffman version was a bit dark and dense for the kiddos. They seemed to love it but were disappointed at intermission that there was a second act.
I shouldn’t have worried that this exposure was a bit of a fail, because all of my children got a chance to be actual participants in our local rink’s annual production of The Nutcracker on Ice. In honor of this year having been the 45th and last shows at the old Robert Crown ice arena, I’m feeling a bit nostalgic about what a big role The Nutcracker played in their lives. For my son, who performed once as a march child and hung up his blades, he had to endure watching his younger sisters perform each December until he left for college. For my daughters, skating in The Nutcracker was a huge deal.
They progressed from group numbers to being soloists and, between the two of them, they performed in the roles of Drosselmeyer, Young Clara, Dream (older) Clara, Sugar Plum Fairy, Arabian, Chinese, Russian, Doll, Flute, Snow Queen, Dew Drop, and House Mouse. Often, they were cast in the same role a few year apart and wore the same costume. I worked backstage, tying so many skates for younger kids that my hands could barely move. I generally watched them perform from the side of the rink, too nervous to be seated. My main job was to cue the numbers so, believe me, I know the music pretty well.
One of my granddaughters skated at the same rink as a Snow Fairy when she was little, a next generation of Nutcracker performers.
Another granddaughter went the ballet route, performing as a preschooler in the “Do-It-Yourself Nutcracker” at Dance Center Evanston and, most recently, in a production of Nutcracker-ish at Fleetwood-Jourdain Center in Evanston. This will be the second year for her and I will be sitting in the audience loving her dancing and humming the music to myself. There may still be some tickets available for that show if you care to join me.
I’m so glad that, while the new Robert Crown Community Center will be the site of next year’s Nutcracker on Ice, more generations of children will get a chance to perform. I love that there are so many local productions of the ballet that give children and dance students the opportunity to participate.
So yes, I’m a huge sucker for The Nutcracker. It wouldn’t be December if I didn’t hear that music. It is fitting that, on the anniversary of the ballet’s less-than-acclaimed debut, we remember Tchaikovsky and are thankful for his magical music.