Ballet Parking: The Nutcracker and Counter-Revolution
by E. Michael Jones
There is something mysterious about The Nutcracker. It’s not just Drosselmayer’s character casting spells or bringing machines to life. The Nutcracker has become a Christmas tradition in the United States, but no one is sure why. “The Nutcracker,” Jack Anderson writes, “invites commentators to spin theoretical webs in an attempt to answer such questions as, ‘What does it all mean?’ or ‘Just why is it that the Nutcracker is so popular?’” People have dedicated entire books to figuring out the meaning of it all. In one of those books, Nutcracker Nation, Jennifer Fisher begins her analysis by addressing the same mystery:
Dancers wanted to know why they wore their toes down to the same tunes every year; artistic directors wanted to know why people thought they owned the ballet and were opinionated about its every aspect; parents wanted to know why their children were desperate to progress from mouse to snowflake, from bon-bon to flower soloist. And everyone wanted to know why, when they ostensibly disdained the cliches of The Nutcracker, they got tears in their eyes every time miniature angels tripped onstage or the Sugar Plum Fairy leaped into her cavalier’s arms to all those wonderfully overwrought crescendos in the grand pas de deux.
The Nutcracker began as a German fairy tale. It then became a Russian ballet, and now, in its latest incarnation, it has become an American ritual. Fisher calls the thousands of Nutcracker productions that get performed every year at Christmastime “a secular ritual.” Fisher tries to be the social scientist, citing Dance anthropologist Cynthia Jean Cohen Bull, who claims that this “ballet should be studied in relation to its social, institutional, and cultural contexts, just as one wold approach the dance forms of Ghana or Bali,” but her involvement is more than clinical. She has devoted years of her life to performing just one ballet, and she can’t understand why she and so many other Americans have invested so much time in it. The Nutcracker gave Fisher “a secular way to share in seasonal celebrations,” and that is important because Americans “are reluctant to commit wholeheartedly to the well-worn rituals and ceremonies of church, state, or theater; yet here is still a longing to commemorate, to celebrate together, to dig deeper, to believe in something true” even if this involves “the taming of Christmas.” The Nutcracker celebrates “the innocence of childhood, rites of passage, and dreams coming true.” The Nutcracker is an “invented tradition,” like Hannukah and “Kwanzaa.” The Nutcracker proposes the best of both worlds: it was “elite but accessible, serious but fun, decorative but meaningful. . . . it wasn’t snooty like some ballets could be, yet it benefited from the rarefied elegance so often associated with the art form.”
I never saw a performance of the Nutcracker as a child growing up in Philadelphia in the 1950s, but my three youngest children, two of whom were girls, have never known a world without The Nutcracker. Sarah Jones began dancing in the Southold Dance Theater production of the Nutcracker when she was five years old. Her brother Sam followed in her footsteps two years later, and now Sam is ready to embark upon a career in ballet because of one particular ballet. The Nutcracker, in my own experience, was less a ritual than a portal to a number of different worlds, all of them alien to life in South Bend, Indiana in the early years of the 21st century.
Fisher’s inability to explicate the mysterious attraction which The Nutcracker exerts over American families lies primarily in the categories she brings to her explication. Dance, she tells us citing Sociologist Angela McRobbie, “operates as a metaphor for an external reality which is unconstrained by the limits and expectations of gender identity and which successfully and relatively painlessly transports its subjects from a passive to a more active psychic position.”
It’s not clear just what kind of dance Professor McRobbie is talking about. It’s pretty clear that her claim has little to do with classical ballets like The Nutcracker where gender identity is, if anything, more exaggerated than what we encounter in everyday life, certainly everyday life in post-sexual revolutionary androgynous America. The prince is totally masculine; and the Sugar Plum fairy totally feminine, and that is what the parents who bring their children to perform in the ballet find attractive about The Nutcracker. If you ask the women who bring their children to perform at the Nutcracker at Southold Dance Theater why they make the sacrifices every year to have their children in the Nutcracker, feminist theory is not high on the list of reasons. Gender identity is, but for all the wrong reasons, at least according to feminist theory. The mothers at Southold want their girls to learn how to be feminine.
The main problem American critics encounter in their attempt to analyze The Nutcracker lies in the categories which inform their analysis. Jennifer Fisher is like the Canadian film critic who said that horror movies were about sexual represssion, because, as a homosexual, he felt that everything was about sexual repression. Sexual repression was also part of everyone’s conventional narrative in the wake of the cultural revolution of the 1960s. As a result, he concluded that the ‘70s were a sexually repressive decade, because the horror genre got started then, when in fact, the exact opposite was the case.
Fisher’s mind is so saturated with the revolutionary categories which have taken up their abode in academe and the institutions academe controls she can’t see The Nutcracker as the quintessentially counter-revolutionary work. Every Year parents from the suburbs surrounding South Bend, Indiana bring their children to the Nutcracker audition to recreate the lost world they never knew.
When the yearly Nutcracker auditions roll around at Southold Dance Theater in South Bend, Indiana, it’s Christmas at the Stahlbaum house inside, but outside it’s the aftermath of the cultural revolution. As you pull into the Southold parking lot you can hear the glass-rattling thump-thump of sub-woofer hip-hop from the cars passing by on Lincoln Way West. South Bend, Indiana is a typical mid-Western city. It was once part of the industrial powerhouse that drove the American economy and helped defeat Fascism in World War II. Now it lays gutted and dying like a Buffalo killed for its tongue.
South Bend has been devastated by the social engineering of the ‘50s and the cultural revolution of the ‘60s. The straw that broke the camel’s back was the property tax increase of the first decade of the twenty-first century. Thousands of homeowners and landlords who could not afford the taxes simply abandoned their homes. In fact, in 2007, 1,800 homes, taking up 10 pages in 9 point type in the local newspaper, were auctioned off in a sheriff’s sale.
But in spite of everything the parents keep coming year after year. Southold Dance Theater was founded 35 years ago as a modern repertory company. It then evolved into a company that put on the Nutcracker once a year because this was the only dance event that could sustain it in existence. Gradually, the dance repertoire became more classical, and as it did Southold unwitting began to occupy a forward position in the culture wars. Since Southold is primarily a school, the main question for parents became, why should my child invest his or her time in this activity? Why not basketball, the traditional winter-time activity for young people in Indiana? Why not soccer, which threatened to usurp basketball’s pre-eminence by the late ‘70s?
The, for the most part, unarticulated answer to all of those questions involved transcendental terms like truth, the good, and beauty, all of which play a foundational role in what it means to be a human being, but none of which ever got articulated convincingly in America. America has always prided itself on its pragmatism, on its ability to do practical things. Now in an outpost of post-industrial America like South Bend, nothing much gets made anymore and little gets done, but mothers are still driven by transcendental desires when it comes to raising their children, and so they bring them each year to the auditions for The Nutcracker, where beauty still has some concrete presence in their lives once a year.
If there is a ritual involved in the Nutcracker, it is the ritual slaying of the rat king. Every year mothers from the suburbs surrounding South Bend set out in their vans and SUVs in a military campaign against the rats and everything they symbolize. Every year they volunteer their little boys and girls as soldiers in the culture wars so that they can defeat the rats of appetite and disorder and chaos by wielding the weapons of truth, beauty, and grace. The Nutcracker is the twenty-first century version of the Children’s Crusade. Hoping that their performance will bring life back to the abandoned houses surrounding Southold may be a fond delusion, like hoping to disperse the fog of cultural malaise with a hand grenade, or it may be more accurate than one would care to admit at first glance. It may be very much like what happens when the toy soldiers drop to their knees and shoulder their toy muskets. When the shot rings out and a rat drops to the floor, appetite and libido dominandi have been defeated by heroic cultural effort.
So the Nutcracker may very well be a ritual, but it’s more than a symbolic ritual which involves the slaying of the rat king every year around the time of the winter solstice. Primitive cultures used dance as a form of sympathetic magic, assuming that if dance could bring the body and mind under control, it could bring elements like wind, rain, earth and fire under control as well.
E. Michael Jones is editor of Culture Wars Magazine.
This is an introductory excerpt from a lengthy article published in the November 2009 issue of Culture Wars. That article is itself an excerpt from E. Michael Jones’s book, Ballet Parking: Performing the Nutcracker as Counter-Revolutionary Act.