Radical freedom in the kingdom of sweets

By Spencer Dew
December 18, 2009

Each December we find ourselves “one Nutcracker nearer to death,” as Richard Buckle observed. This fairytale ballet, with its pantomime, its ballroom dancing, and its Orientalist divertissements tacked onto a story about a dream voyage to a benign monarchy of sweets, is aimed chiefly at children or, as the saying goes, the child within us all.

But – to echo Edwin Denby, who, in his excellent essay on this ballet, asked “Has the action anything to do with Christmas?” – does The Nutcracker’s treatment of childhood have some religious content?

“Nowadays, with psychoanalysis practically a household remedy, grown-ups take the nonsense of fairy tales more seriously than children,” Denby wrote in 1944, quickly rattling through consequential elements of the ballet: A mysteriously alluring one-eyed bachelor gives a prepubescent girl a gift of male figure, a nutcracker, quickly envied and broken by her brother…

Well, you know the rest, or have sat through it as it spins around on stage. Yet the dream scenes that follow fast on the Christmas party do not seem to echo the contemporary culture of commercialization, with its embrace of the child’s experience of Christmas as that of gifts expected and received. Might there be some deeper message?

Denby’s genius was to argue against a “solution” couched in Freudian terms; rather, he insisted that The Nutcracker, as we see it on the stage, is not merely a story and is certainly not a dream (even if it is presented as one). The plot may make “sense enough as a subconscious reverie beginning with a cruel sexual symbol,” but a dance is a dance, or, as Denby put it, “The clarity of the dance-suite form controls the pressure of the unconscious theme and by easy stages brings on a pleasing change of emotion.”

This change – the physical and emotional trajectory of the ballet – from the “sadistic,” “gloomy,” and “oppressed” Christmas party where “the dancer don’t really get off the floor” to, in the dream scenes, a sense of freedom, lightness, and openness such that “in the end there is a happy sense that everyone on the stage has leaped about freely and sufficiently” is, according to Denby, The Nutcracker’s relation to Christmas, “turning envy and pain into lovely invention and social harmony.”

Closer consideration of this trajectory shows us more. While those who grew up watching Balanchine’s tender homage to domestic bliss may have a different memory, most American companies present the opening Christmas party scene as a dull stretch of starched curtsies and forced socialization, feigned friendliness and hypocritically-held facades, an oppression broken only slightly by the arrival of the undeniably creepy Drosselmeier with his jerky mechanical dolls.

It doesn’t take a lapse back to psychoanalytical reading to see the swarm of vicious rodents as an echo of this hellish holiday party. The adult world in The Nutcracker is a grotesque and deadened place – grounded. It is a world where the vitality of life has been replaced with the sinister presence of dancing mannequins.

Escape comes in fantasy – or so the adults in the audience know. There is no land of candy, and it’s entirely inappropriate to leap around all day. As adults, we’re even quick to denounce the undulating bellies of the Arabian coffee as racist caricature. We would prefer our coffee politically correct, lukewarm. But as I recall from childhood, that blizzard of ballerinas didn’t track as placation or lie but read instead as a real and wonderful possibility.

In an adult world where “sugar plums” are seen as rewards for a long day of work or an energizing snack in order to increase productivity on the job, the Sugar Plum Fairy – sovereign of her own utopian kingdom – offers a vision of radical counter-existence. The stifling bourgeois reality of the opening scene, with all its itchy decorum and formalized etiquette is contrasted with visions of freedom emphasizing wonder (the snowflakes) pleasure (the sweets) and the startling scope of the world (the various national dances).

Denby’s attempt to link the ballet with the message of Christmas – from “envy and pain” to “invention and social harmony” – offers only part of the potential religious content of this seasonal ritual, which depicts as well a possibility of liberation from the society represented at its start.

Ideally, we can see the ballet this winter not as “adults” – checking our watches, worrying about how traffic will be when the show lets out, quick to dismiss the sugary nonsense – but as “children” who have yet to select for ourselves the weighty yokes and stiff collars of life… at least not permanently.

The Nutcracker has at least this to say about the world it presents to us at the rise of the curtain – it is not the only option.

[Edwin Denby’s “Meaning in The Nutcracker” is anthologized in his collection Dance Writings and Poetry, edited by Robert Cornfield, Yale University Press, 1998.]


(c) Spencer Dew is an instructor in the department of theology at Loyola University, Chicago, USA.

With grateful acknowledgements to Sightings, and the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School, Illinois, USA.

Keywords:Music | christmas
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