The Nihilistic Nutcracker: How Ballet’s Roots Confound Modern Political Issues
As the holiday season winds to a close, the last of the Christmas trees find homes on snow banks and curbsides and holiday decorations are put away for another year, the dance world also moves away from one of the season’s classics, The Nutcracker. Many ballet companies around the world stage this classic performance every holiday season to the delight of children and adults alike, the familiar heartwarming story becoming a holiday favorite to the masses. Originally penned by a German author but tweaked and set to Tchaikovsky’s iconic score, ballet companies from Philadelphia to Saint Petersburg eagerly don the familiar costumes and perform a spectacular that each troupe aims to make their own. The history of this iconic ballet, however, complicates both the storyline and the performers’ relationships to the narrative, especially now as political tensions rise between the U.S., Russia, and Ukraine. Practicing an artform that is so heavily tied to Russian culture leaves both Ukraine and America at an artistic impasse. Can one nation claim a genre of self-expression, and what does it mean for each country’s nationalist sensibilities if they continue to dance to Russia’s rhythm?
An interview from 2015 followed the journey of one American dancer who made the leap from American ballet to Russian ballet and spoke about her experiences with the change. Joy Womack, the first American ballerina to ever be accepted into a Russian ballet company and to train with the Bolshoi Academy, regards Russian ballet as the best: “…the Russian school system was the best, and it produce[s] the highest quality of dancers,” she was quoted in her interview. Many ballerinas and ballet enthusiasts alike agree with Womack’s assessment, following the Russian practices as the most traditional and historical variations in the world, and the truest to the artform’s essence. The distinction between Russian style dance and American, French, and English dance can easily be distinguished by the astute eye of an expert dancer or a passionate fan of ballet’s history. The artform itself, despite originating in Italy, is popularly attributed to its frigid Slavic neighbor to the north, and the reputation of Tchaikovsky’s legendary scores give Russia some of the most well known associations with the dance in the world. Despite its closeness with Russia, however, many ballet companies have formed outside the nation and around the world. One of the newer troupes, The National Ballet Academy and Trust of India—headquartered in Mumbai, was only established in 2002. International dancers audition across the world to be a part of The Royal Ballet, American Ballet Theater, and The Paris Opera Ballet, to name a few world-renowned companies not in Russia. Despite ballet’s diaspora, however, The Bolshoi Ballet remains one of the most prestigious programs in the world, and without fail during the holidays, nearly every company puts on a performance of The Nutcracker. The National Opera of Ukraine began putting on this year’s version in early December and continues to present the show through February.
While The Nutcracker arguably isn’t the most famous ballet, perhaps second or third to Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, or Giselle, just like two out of its three counterparts, it was first debuted by the Bolshoi in St. Petersburg, Russia. The historian Damien Mahiet explains that the ballet itself is tied to Russia’s history more so even than in its original debut or musical score. Tchaikovsky composed the score during the reign of Tsar Alexander III, who was notoriously heavy-handed at home but eager to create relationships abroad, a sentiment tied to the cacophony of cultures and costumes found in the second act’s presentation of The Land of Sweets. The original dances included Arabia, Spain, and Russia, while modern versions usually include China and an Italian inspired interlude. Mahiet explains that the original ending to this segment, too, revolved around subliminal Russian agendas. The dancers were meant to create the appearance of a large hive of bees “closely guarding their riches”, a metaphor, Mahiet says, that was meant to mimic Alexander’s image of a united Russia under his rigid monarchy. While some of these additions have since been removed, like the hive of bees, the inclusion of more modern alliances, like China and Italy, reveal the Russian underpinning present in every iteration of the ballet. The Nutcracker isn’t the only popular performance to include Russian perspectives, as many popular ballets, like the ones mentioned above, include original Russian choreography, or are heavily influenced by it. As the rest of the world adopts the beautiful artform and presents it in their own cultures, Russia’s influence remains ever-present in the footwork and storylines of many popular performances.
Now, years after the ballet’s debut, in an article from January 20th, President Biden was documented giving statements in Berlin, updating his warning to President Putin and his troops gathering at the Ukrainian border. Responding to reporters at the White House previously, President Biden claimed that Russia would be met with a “severe and coordinated economic response”, recently adding that the movement of troops across the border would be understood as an official invasion of Ukraine by the U.S. and NATO. What kind of an economic response might this entail? Despite likely alluding to a complex shipping change or trade embargo, it seems both the American president and the Ukrainian president should consider the economic impact of Russia’s ballet empire, the kind which alludes to such embargos but is pervasive in both American and Ukrainian culture. Save the importing of Russian-made pointe shoes, ballerinas across these countries continue to perform dances and shows that are incredibly Russian in nature, all while their governments condemn the actions of Russia’s military movements at Ukraine’s borders. As Putin’s troops pushed ever closer to Kyiv this past December, Ukrainian and American ballerinas alike undertook the famous roles popularized by imperial and soviet-era Russia. Citizens of each country continue to pay, season after season, to watch the spectacular, most never knowing the important place it holds in Russian history and the modern Russian narrative. The Red Scare proponents of the Cold War would quake to be made aware of how such a foreign story could have been made benign enough to show their children during the holidays.
While the mastery of the artform, skill of the dancers, and wonder-filled storylines remain intact, the historical connection of ballet indicates the complete irony between current political relations, and the core cultural elements of the key players in the dispute. As Ukraine's fears increase regarding a Russian invasion, a modern attempt at reuniting the old Soviet Union, the people continue to marvel at the Russian presence which lingers in Ukrainian culture. American statements hang in the balance condemning the approaching hostility, as their dancers perform an ode to Russia on their very own domestic stages.