A Valuable Tradition, Ballet Endures

By Alicia Anstead

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Back in October, New Republic dance critic Jennifer Homans suggested that ballet was dead. She couldn’t have known that she would set off a fire storm of response. First of all, it’s the ballet people who interpreted what she said to mean ballet is dead. In fact, Homans said she suspected it was dying or at least falling into a deep slumber like Sleeping Beauty.

As if the ghost of ballet’s godfather Louis 14th himself had been stirred to action, ballet was suddenly everywhere. The New York Times launched a national blog about the dance form and the ballet movie The Black Swan plieted into theaters. A month earlier, the New York City Ballet launched a sexy ad campaign on subway billboards in the country’s hub for all things dance.

I can’t argue with Homans about the place of tradition in a remix world. But her announcement seemed particularly ill-timed. It coincided with the busiest season for most ballet companies in the western world – a period I like to call that Crazy Nutcracker Season.

In part because I wanted to check out Homans’ thesis locally and also out of nostalgia, I made a pilgrimage this month back to the see The Nutcracker. I say “back” not because I grew up going to the ballet. But in the last 20 years, I’ve seen more than 30 productions of The Nutcracker – sometimes as a reviewer, sometimes as the parent of a snowflake. I rarely write reviews these days, and my little snowflake is now a biologist in graduate school – so I haven’t been to The Nutcracker for a long time.

But not much has changed. And I don’t necessarily mean the dancing. I mean the community spirit. On opening night of the Walnut Hill School’s Nutcracker in Natick, the hall was packed with eager family members, teachers, students and little sisters wearing flouncy dresses all rooting for success more than perfection. No one cared when Drosselmeyer abracadabra-ed the holiday tree off the stage – and it whammed into a wall instead of into the wings.

Once, at a production in Maine, fake cannons spurted out a bit too much smoke and set off the theater’s alarms. In minutes, the audience, the Sugar Plum Fairy, the Mouse King and Mother Ginger were all standing in the parking lot waiting for the system to be reset. Then the show went on, and no one cared about that extra bit of drama.

Even in a professional setting, such as Boston Ballet Company’s Nutcracker, the mystical spirit of the dance form fills the grand hall. The little boy in front of me last week was seeing the show for the first time. He jostled excitedly between his parents, asking why Fritz was in trouble and did the mice get hurt? When Clara’s dreamscape turned scary, he buried his head in his mother’s shoulder. “It’s just a terrible dream,” she assured the boy. But it was very real to him.

For me, The Nutcracker has lost some of its glitter – not in the productions or the music but the story. This time, I saw a creepy older guy bullying a little girl – whose gilded family probably gets tax breaks this year. And I noticed the elements of war and violence more than ever before.

And yet, it would be a terrible dream, indeed, if ballet were to die. At its best, The Nutcracker and perhaps the unique magic of ballet are symbols of community life at its most generous and most elegant.



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Alicia Anstead Alicia Anstead


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