I hate The Nutcracker. I hate, hate, hate it. From the age of 4 to 14, I was forced to participate in its production every year. My mother, a former ballerina of the School of American Ballet, put me in ballet classes as soon as I could walk, and I stayed in ballet classes until I realized I had breasts.
For those of you unfamiliar with The Nutcracker (although I'm unsure how you could be, given that the Tchaikovsky soundtrack is blared repeatedly through every shopping-mall speaker every holiday season), it's the balletic interpretation of a short story. It stars a little rich girl named Clara who falls asleep at her parents' boring-ass holiday party and has wild dreams about her creepy godfather, the family's tree, and the horde of mice that want to destroy the Christmas vibes of what is effectively one big Model UN meeting of racially stereotyped delegates from the different nations of Candyland.
The first production of The Nutcracker took place in 1892 at the Mariinsky Theatre of Saint Petersburg, which is important for Americans living in the age of Trump to know. While the Russian elites were clapping politely to white dancers depicting the characters of exotic Chinese "tea" and Arabian "coffee," Alexander III was wrangling with an empire that had gotten too big for its Russian britches. Four years prior, Russia had annexed more territory from the Ottoman Empire, and in order to drum up some white nationalist pride in an increasingly multicultural state, Alexander III had started encouraging open season on Russia's Jews, who, at that time numbered in the millions. A couple of decades later, much of my family left their Russian shtetls and emigrated to the United States in order to avoid being slaughtered, raped, and burned to death. The production of The Nutcracker didn't become popular in the United States until the 1960s, when America was growing into its new identity as a global empire, too.
There is no story to The Nutcracker. The mouse king gets murdered by Clara's charming nutcracker prince (an associate of her creepy godfather), and the second act of the ballet is a display of gratitude from all the candy nations, which perform for their new royalty and do not question the basis of their autocratic reality. I have played many Nutcracker roles. I have been a mouse, an angel, a snowflake, a polichinelle, and a Spanish dancer. Every year, I rehearsed for months before the opening show, side-stepped the wild-eyed stage moms hell-bent on getting their daughters into the state ballet corps, and wolfed down hoagies in dressing rooms smelling of sweat glands and a hundred pairs of bruised and bloody feet.
I quit doing ballet after my last Nutcracker because a girl in the year above me—a beautiful dancer and already very skinny—had been told she was too fat and needed to lose weight. At that time, I had already dislocated my knee twice, and I was just a year away from smoking pot in the Walmart parking lot and carving Nirvana lyrics into my bedroom walls. I knew something better was out there for me, and a lifetime of eating disorders and knee surgeries was not it.
But I do have one positive association with The Nutcracker. My mother, who really did her best to escape her own Russian ballet upbringing in which the instructors would actually hit you with canes, eventually opened up her own tiny dance studio with the hopes of giving students world-class ballet training without world-class ballet trauma. (She has done an amazing job; I am really very proud of her for this.) But like every other dance studio and ballet company out there, she's forced to put on The Nutcracker every year because it is a guaranteed cash cow, bringing in audiences who wouldn't go see ballet otherwise.
One year, my mother got so fed up with using the same music and choreography that she invited hiphop choreographer Clyde Evans Jr. to cut in a new routine for the mice. Evans replaced Tchaikovsky with Public Enemy's "Fight the Power," and for what I believe may have been the first time in The Nutcracker's century-long history, the show gave audiences something they were not expecting or fully comfortable with. I loved it.