The Nutcracker for Novices

I don’t have the proper capacity to appreciate dance. Most public movement makes me self-conscious, and when I have been drunk enough to try dancing, it looks like some obscure sloth mating dance. My first experience with organized live dance came at age 36, when I went with my wife’s family to see a performance of The Nutcracker.

I knew bits and pieces of the story, but I had never seen a full performance, even on television. I knew it was a holiday “classic,” and I had heard people dissect different versions of it. Houston’s version was supposed to be better than Boston’s. As a football fan, I could appreciate an aspect of competition.

When we got to the Opera House, it was families decked out in their Christmas best. And surprisingly, a bar that served beer by the bottle. Bottles that you were allowed to bring into the theater, because some people may need a little lubrication to get through the evening. And the venue is okay with that.

Things were looking up – there was a chance that not only would I get to see my first ballet, I would get to see that ballet heckled by a drunken fan. I imagined the possibilities.

“Where’d you learn to pirouette? A correspondence course?”

“You call that a battle scene? Where’s the blood?”

I didn’t get that. As disappointing as that was, what I did get was completely bizarre. The sets were beautiful, the dancing most probably top notch. There was a thirty-foot Christmas tree, snow, grandparents, swordplay, cloud cities, and giant rats. It was indeed Christmassy in a trippy way, the kind of happy, fraught tale that might result from drinking opium tea with sugar cookies by the light of the tree.

The audience seemed to enjoy it, even if it was occasionally interrupted by a beer bottle clanking down the concrete levels beneath the fuzzy red theater seats. My companions had all seen it before, and were taking it in with a critic’s eye. I was still trying to find the plot when the show ended to thunderous applause and the dancers took their bows. Then the inevitable question, “So, what’d you think?” My answer was not simple. It was hard to digest

Going into it without many details, with almost no foreknowledge, this is how I saw the story of The Nutcracker. Keep in mind, your local production may differ. And you may bring an entirely different accumulation of 36 years of not seeing The Nutcracker to the performance. But this is the general story arc. Liberties were taken with character names.

Principle Characters and Quick Summary:

A cute little girl gets a Nutcracker as a Christmas present – a handsome and useful present for a girl who enjoys soldiers and nuts – from a local toymaker. The Nutcracker becomes some sort of father figure/protector/love interest, and the girl and Nutcracker/prince take a journey that would make Ulysses puke with horror and wonder, fighting rodent men and sampling entertainment from random imaginary countries. Then, apparently, it ends.

The Detailed Story:

As the ballet opens, a man in a purple coat with an eye patch whom I will call the Dread Pirate Charles Nelson Reilly Liberace, is buffing his Nutcracker for the ball. He favors this creation so much that he just tosses his other presents at the tree upon arriving and presents it to the children, who have been dancing in lines and see it as a welcome distraction. Grandma and grandpa try to dance, remember they are old, and fall down.

DPCNRL makes his Asian slaves dance in robot and bear costumes. Then he presents the Nutcracker, but only one girl wants it. Then a little boy wants it, and winds up tearing off the Nutcracker’s head, for which he is punished and then given a watch. As is the tradition, once the Nutcracker is broken, everyone goes home.

The little girl then falls asleep under the tree, which is immediately set upon by a platoon of armed rats dressed as Persians. DPCNRL is not the fighting type, so he puts the Nutcracker under his cape to coax him to full size, which is the proper reaction when a toymaker is attacked under a Christmas tree by rodents. The Nutcracker then fights the Persian rats, who send baby rats into battle. As they are baby rats, they do not win. The King Rat and Nutcracker lock in mortal combat. The Nutcracker is stabbed, stabs the King Rat, and then dies.

According to custom, when a Nutcracker dies, he turns into a Prince. As a rite of passage, the Nutcracker Prince chooses an underaged girl to take to the forest, where dancing female snow pixes outnumber dancing male snow pixies nine to one. When the snow pixies finish dancing, the Nutcracker Prince and the little girl fly off in a balloon flown by DPCNRL. DPCNRL shows he can fly, but only when he has his hand sticks and gossamer cape.

In act two DPCNRL, the Nutcracker Prince, and the girl float to the Pink Cloud City, where small girls are forced to hold candles stiffly for mere pennies a day. Then all of the countries of Pink Cloud City do dances representative of their Cloud Country culture – Cloud Spaniards, Cloud Arabs, Cloud Russians, and Cloud Sheep People. Then Lady Junkatrunk arrives and gives birth to eight fully clothed children. Then the children decide they don’t want to live in a world of dance and unbirth themselves back into Lady Junkatrunk’s enormous skirt. She leaves, embarrassed.

Then the Nutcracker Prince and a Cloud City hottie dance, trying desperately to scrape and shake sugar plum droppings from their shoes. Each country’s designated representative then returns to remind the audience of their dancing and, noticing the little girl is still there, shoo her back into her balloon with DPCNRL and chase her away. Her whereabouts is currently unknown.


Anyone who has seen The Nutcracker can verify this is exactly how it happens. Unless the ballet holds a special performance for newbies designed to confuse them. Which, come to think of it, would make perfect sense.

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