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What brings audiences back to The Nutcracker year after year?



GEORGE BALANCHINE'S THE NUTCRACKER at The New York City Ballet. Photo © Paul Kolnik

What is it that makes The Nutcracker so enduring? Is it the story? Is it the music? Is it the dancing? Or is it simply a holiday tradition? Having danced in the show, learned variations in ballet class, and seen multiple productions since my first, at the age of four, I have always wondered what brings people back to the show and how it has turned into a special holiday tradition for so many.

In an effort to discover why this ballet continues to be such a popular holiday tradition, I conducted a six-question survey at a few local dance studios in addition to polling friends and family on social media. While some answers were expected others surprised me.

The Nutcracker ballet is based on the rather dark story entitled “The Nutcracker and the King of Mice” written by E.T.A. Hoffman in 1816. A lighter revision written in 1844 by Alexander Dumas, the well-known French author of “The Three Musketeers” is the version that most closely reflects what is now seen on stage. The famous music of the ballet entitled “The Nutcracker Suite” is by composer Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. The Nutcracker was first produced as a full length ballet at the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1892. Since then, companies around the world have made it their own and added it to their repertoire. It is one of the most famous, if not the most famous, ballet in the world. Even if people have not seen a production of it, they have heard the story or know a little about the ballet.

For those readers not too familiar with the ballet, it is the story of a young girl named Clara, or Marie depending on the version being produced, whose family throws a holiday party for their family and friends at their home in Germany on Christmas Eve. The girl receives a special Nutcracker doll and later that night she dreams the Nutcracker comes to life, defeats the Mouse King, travels with her through an enchanted forest of snow to the wondrous Land of Sweets where they are greeted by the Sugar Plum Fairy. There they enjoy a magical celebration of dances performed by various sweets. Just as choreography may change depending on the company, other details vary within each production. Some change the names of the characters, while others vary the story itself to guide the audience into believing it was all a dream or that the young girl’s adventures did actually occur. Most do, however, continue to spark imagination, the thrill of movement and music, and the belief in holiday magic.

The first question I asked audience members was: What is your favorite part about attending The Nutcracker during the holiday season? The top response was tradition and dancing. Coming in a close second is that the ballet evokes for many that Christmas spirit feeling. Others love getting dressed up, seeing different dancer’s interpretations of the characters and listening to the rich music. Secondly, I asked how many times over the last fifteen years have they attended a production of The Nutcracker. Fifty percent of those surveyed have seen a production between eight and twenty or more times over the past fifteen years. An additional twenty five percent have attended a production between three and seven times. I then asked who they attend the production with and what the age range of the group is. The majority of people attend with family, while many others attend with friends. The age range of audience members attending, based on my survey, is between five years old and all the way up into the nineties.

The fourth question in the survey was: What is your favorite part of act one and why? Over fifty percent of people chose the Snow Scene at the end of act one. They described the scene as relaxing, sparkly, bright, beautiful, magical and powerful; with glorious music and stunning dancing. This scene has always been one of my favorites for all of the reasons described, but also because of its delicateness as the snow falls covering the stage and as the dancers turn and float across it.

In addition, the Pas de Deux between the Snow Queen and King is simply mesmerizing to watch. The fun party scene at the opening of the act was a close second. The fifth question asks: What is your favorite part of act 2 and why? These answers were a bit more varied, but the top choice was predictably the Sugar Plum Fairy. This role is often labeled as an ultimate goal for ballerinas participating in a Nutcracker production. This dance was described as pretty, graceful, gorgeous and “such a coveted role that you really paid attention to her”. Other favorites in act two include the fluid Arabian, the powerful Russian, the funny Mother Ginger and the graceful Waltz of the Flowers and Dew Drop. Many audience members had a difficult time choosing just one routine because they enjoyed them all so much.

The sixth and final question was: What is the number one reason you return to The Nutcracker year after year? The top response was “it is a tradition I look forward to every year” and the dancing, of course, was another top reply. One answer that I believe ties them all together is: “To me, The Nutcracker has become a Christmas tradition. It is something that I share with family at the holidays and the show is a beautiful piece of art.” Another response which I received a number of times was, they like to support the performing arts and seeing talented dancers perform, all while spending time with their family during the holidays.

Both professional ballet companies and local dance studios put on yearly productions of The Nutcracker which makes it relatively easy to find a production nearby that fits your budget. Whether you’re a major ballet fan or a ballet neophyte, The Nutcracker is a great introduction into the ballet world; especially for young dancers. It is there they often fall even more in love with the artistry of ballet and their own dreams of dancing in the production begin.

So this holiday season, if you’ve never seen a production live or you have a young child dancing around house I encourage you to watch a production of The Nutcracker. You may once again believe in the magic of Christmas or even start a new tradition with your family and friends.