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Cracking the Nut: The Meaning of Nutcracker

Written by Mariko Nagashima
International Ballet Theater’s Nutcracker
Photo by Rex Tranter
For most non-dancers (and many dancers, for that matter), when thinking of ballet, they think of the Nutcracker. With its flurry of snowflakes, dancing children, and sugary sweets, the festive ballet has been an American tradition since Willam Christiansen’s production for the San Francisco Ballet in 1944. With countless incarnations across the country since then, it is often the one performance people see each year. For many it is their first and sometimes only impression of ballet. For most companies this mainstream American appeal is what keeps them financially solvent, and as such, it is often regarded both a boon and a curse to the art form. (For a fantastic article about Nutcracker’s downside, see critic Sarah Kauffman’s article for the The Washington Post here). But regardless of its saccharine charm, Nutcrackermarches across stages every year with the same diligence as its many toy soldiers. There are almost ten Nutcrackers being performed in the greater Seattle area this year (see our Holiday Guide for details), and SeattleDances went to four of these productions to ask the directors and dancers, youths and adults, their thoughts about Nutcracker and what it means to them.

Just as each production varies slightly, Nutcracker has a different meaning for each company and each has their own reason for re-staging it every year. For Vera Altunina, director of International Ballet Theater in Kirkland, it’s all about sharing her heritage with the next generation. Originally from St. Petersburg, Altunina’s training was steeped with the original Nutcracker of 1892, and she has tried to preserve this version as much as possible in her own production. “Those traditions raised me and made me who I am,” she said. “It was very important to me, and I want to share that with the community and with people here in this part of the Earth.” For Kevin Kaiser, the Artistic Director of Evergreen City Ballet based in Renton, there’s a bit less nostalgia; he echoes the reasoning found in most ballet companies. “Nutcracker is fundamental to the continued growth of our organization; it is one of the major performances that keep us financially alive.” Though Kaiser’s production is on the traditional side as well, he sees its main import as a stepping stone for his students. “It’s significant to learn to be in a corps, to be onstage by themselves, and how to partner and be in front of an audience.”

PNB principal dancers Kaori Nakamura and
Jonathan Porretta in the Kent Stowell/Maurice Sendak Nutcracker.
 Photo © Angela Sterling.
As for the dancers, the responses varied, but had common themes. Instead of begrudging putting on the same show year in and year out, most seemed appreciative of the comfort it brought every season and the truly magical quality of the production. Here’s a sampling of what dancers had to say:

Jonathan Poretta

PNB Principal dancer

Roles this year: The Prince

“It just means tradition. It’s always fun to have performances with all the kids and students. They’re just so excited about performing. Just tradition. The best are the people who come every season. They’re really the best. We wish they would come to other rep too but we’re happy they come to Nut. I have to say, being a principal in PNB I only have one role in Nutcracker. As a new dancer I had about eleven roles, I was on every show, with two to three parts in every show. It’s hard, we’re so thankful; the corps, they put the show on for us. They’re the ones who have it the hardest. They get the brunt of all the performances.”

Jessika Anspach

PNB corps de ballet dancer

Roles this year: Frau Stauhlbaum, Pirlipat, Ballerina Doll, Snowflake, Corps and Lead Moor, Commedia, Peacock, Flower

“It means Christmas. It means dancing and getting in shape. It’s like a really wonderful familiar friend. It’s hard, it’s long, but there’s nothing like it. There’s no other time that you’re onstage that much, and that’s what we work so hard for in the studio: to get out there onstage.”

Ivana Lin, 18 yrs oldEvergreenCity Ballet

Roles this year: Dewdrop, Sugarplum, Snowflake, Marzipan

Nutcracker was the first ballet I saw as a child. I was really captivated by it, not just the steps or choreography, but how each individual can make each role their own. It’s what brought me to ballet and I’ve been dancing ever since.”

Greta Hearn, 8 years old

Olympic Ballet Theater

Roles this year: Sugarcube

“Fun! [It means] that you get to go onstage and put make-up on!”

International Ballet Theater’s Nutcracker
Photo by Rex Tranter
Maddy Tucker, 17 years old

International Ballet Theater

Roles this year: Ballerina Doll, Snow Queen, Snowflake, Arabian, Flower Soloist

“The feeling of going to the theater. There’s something different about it [than with other shows]. It’s so magical. It’s just one of those performances that you get to just have fun with. This year especially, because it’s my senior year and I’ve been dreaming of doing Arabian since I was 6!”

Katie Rookstool, 17 years old

Olympic Ballet Theater

Roles this year: Party Mom, Snow Solo. Russian, Flora, Flower

“I like learning new choreography. And the hectic-ness of it, the craziness. Nothing’s the same as Nutcracker!”

Evergreen City Ballet’s Nutcracker
Photo courtesy of ECB
Grace Armstrong, 14 years old

Olympic Ballet Theater

Roles this year: Snow, Flowers, Pas de Trois

“It’s just really magical with the different sets and costumes, and it’s fun in a make-believe kind of way. I just like performing.”

Alex Montgomery, 12 years old

Evergreen City Ballet

Roles this year: Clara

“I always love being backstage and listening to the music. And the snow scene. I love their skirts flowing everywhere with the snow on them. I think it’s just magical.”

Gillian Smith, 10 years old

International Ballet Theater

Roles this year: Clara

“I like the part where we’re performing, because everybody’s watching and it makes me want to do my best. I like the feeling of people watching me.”

And even though they perform it every year, when asked if there was something they dislike or dread about the experience, there were few complaints: “Curls! I hate the curls! It takes forever to put them in!” said Montgomery of ECB. And while Anspach, in the corps de ballet at PNB, spoke of dreading the physical exhaustion from so many performances, both she and Lin of ECB conceded that this creates a great sense of camaraderie among the company. “There’s nothing I really hate about Nutcracker,” said Lin. “It’s such a community for older and younger dancers, to all be there together on and offstage.”

The snow scene from Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Stowell/Sendak Nutcracker.
Photo © Angela Sterling.
Seeing rehearsals across the region and hearing so many different perspectives only served to reinforce that Nutcracker is a multi-faceted experience. It ultimately proved that ballet is alive and well, especially in smaller-scale pre-professional schools and companies. Whether it’s through the music, the magic, or the tradition, Nutcracker’s most important function seems to be its ability to inspire the next generation to dance.

For information on each company and to purchase tickets for their respective Nutcrackers, see the links below: