The presents are open; the stockings are empty. Your belly is full from a delightful Christmas brunch and all that remains is a few more days of lounging in pajamas, noshing on leftovers and watching every Christmas movie in the inventory.
Flipping through the cable channels, your Mom suddenly perks up...
"Oh! Look, hon! The Nutcracker!"
"The Nutcracker. You know... ballet."
Here you find yourself at a crossroads. Do you:
1) Subject yourself to what could potentially be two-and-a-half hours of painful confusion shrouded in layers of lace, tulle (what the heck is tulle!?!) and sugar plums?
2) Pour another shot of Bailey's into your coffee and pretend to know what's going on, while making a prodigious effort to not make fun of the men in tights?
3) Fake indigestion and go back to bed?
I've come to rescue you. You see, it's possible to understand, and even enjoy The Nutcracker to avoid yourself the embarrassment of your Mom telling the whole family Christmas table that you had gas last year to the point that you couldn't even watch The Nutcracker.
Much like trying to understand a David Lynch film, sometimes it helps to have a little backstory...
Here's the gist:
Clara, the lead girl, is attending her family's Christmas party. All the fancy people in the neighborhood are invited, including Clara's creepy Uncle. The kids do a dance, including Clara's obnoxious brother Fritz, and then the grown-ups do a dance. Creepy Uncle guy is an inventor/toy-maker who brings entertainment and presents to the party, including life-sized wind-up dolls and a Nutcracker for Clara.
Clara drinks one too many egg nogs and passes out under the Christmas tree and has a psychedelic dream in which the tree grows really, really big. Mice come into the picture and fight against toy soldiers, now life-sized, lead by the now somewhat alive Nutcracker doll. Nutcracker offs the Mouse King and turns into a Prince. They dance. It snows. The Nutcracker doll turns into a handsome prince.
Clara is then whisked off into the land of the sweets, which is basically an excuse to show off the soloists in the dance company. The plot here is loose, so just enjoy the pretty dancing. Toward the end, Clara and the Prince dance again, and sometimes another lady in a tutu, the Sugar Plum Fairy, dances with the Prince too. Sometimes this happens before a big group dance of tutus that look like flowers, and sometimes after.
Then, Clara wakes up.
FAQ's about The Nutcracker:
Why do the men wear those awful tights?
It's complicated. Tights go way back (like, 1800s back). The idea is have freedom of movement and full display of the musculature of the leg. Why it's necessary to display all of the dancer's manhood I'm not so sure. I can only reassure you that it gets less awkward the more times you watch ballet.
What is tulle?
Tulle is the netted, fluffy fabric that makes up the under layers of tutus. There are two types of tutus: classical (the stiff, flat ones that show the whole leg) and romantic, the calf-length puffy ones. Most costume tutus are overlaid with lace, or velvet, or some other fancy fabric like satin.
If I've seen one, I've seen it all, right?
Not necessarily. There are hundreds of Nutcrackers out there, and a dozen or so that are aired on TV. Ovation does a weekly "Battle of the Nutcrackers" between Thanksgiving and Christmas, so you can watch a couple and see if one strikes your fancy. The music will be the same, and the gist will, basically, be the same, but there are many, many flavors of Nutcracker. My personal favorite: American Ballet Theatre's made-for-TV version filmed in the 80s starring Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gelsey Kirkland. For those of you who are ready to commit on a deeper level, there are hundreds of Nutcrackers performed around the country. Here is a small list of Chicago-area productions if you live in my neck of the woods.
All this is fine, but I'm still just not that into it...
That's cool. That earlier tip about adding Bailey's to your coffee helps, but I'll be the first to admit that ballet isn't for everyone. I will say, though, that if you haven't seen The Nutcracker at least once, be it in person or on TV, give it a shot. You just might find it to be a fun holiday tradition. Plus, there are rumors of a juicy backstory in which creepy Uncle Drosselmeyer is actually a mad scientist and it's all a real ploy to get Clara to come of age and her "dance" with the Prince is the start of her womanhood. Apparently some of this is revealed in the decidedly darker short story that the ballet is based on by ETA Hoffmann. I'll let you know if I can substantiate that if I ever get around to reading it...
This article was first published on The L Stop and has been reproduced with permission from the Editors.
Photo Credit: Dylan Gutierrez & Jack Thorpe-Baker in Joffrey's The Nutcracker, photo by Herbert Migdoll (used with permission)