The most popular Christmas music remains, I’m sure, the light hymns known as Christmas carols. As far as Christmas’s most popular classical music goes, Tchaikovsky‘s ballet “The Nutcracker” is virtually unchallenged. (I have seen Christmases without “The Messiah,” but never without a “Nutcracker.”)
The enduring popularity of the “Nutcracker” is scarcely an impenetrable mystery; the reasons for it are many and obvious.
First of all, there is the gorgeous music. So many ballet scores— even famous ones like “Giselle” or “Coppélia” — are inert and meaningless when detached from the dancers. In the “Nutcracker,” even the shortest sections have their own unique sound world, their unforgettable, instantly recognizable melodies
Take away the sets and choreography, set it in the most austere of concert halls, and in a few bars, the audience is entranced. Only “Swan Lake,” “The Rite of Spring,” “The Firebird,” “Romeo and Juliet,” and “Cinderella” (the Russians seem to have a monopoly on this gift) can hold their own this way in a concert performance, but they are not Christmas ballets.
Next, there is the spectacle. I cannot remember a production of the “Nutcracker” that wasn’t top drawer, full of bright swirling colors, lithe twirling dancers, and captivating special effects.
Then, there is the story, based on E. T. A. Hoffmann‘s tale “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King,” in which, at Christmas time, a young girl is magically transported to another, fantastical world, falls in love, and returns to her home mostly grown up. A very romantic adventure, passionate and bittersweet, and sure to appeal to the millions who suspect that there is another, better — or, at least, more interesting — life, somewhere, than their own boring, humdrum existence.
It is also possible that some of the popularity of the “Nutcracker” is due to its entire lack of any religious message: the sole connection with the birth of Christ is that the story of Clara’s adventure unfolds as a parenthetical episode during her family’s Christmas celebration.
The ballet is not, in this Christian sense, a parable with a lesson. (Tchaikovsky did write a handful of sacred works, of which I daresay none of us have ever heard.)
Most importantly, there are the children: the children on stage, dancing or singing; the children in the audience, straining to hear and see (how many children, riding home after the show, begin to pester their parents for ballet lessons?); and the children who sleep in the hearts of all of us, our childhood selves, awakened by Tchaikovsky’s music.
Without children, there would be no “Nutcracker.” Without children, one could almost say, there would be no Christmas, because, for adults, Christian or not, Christmas means one thing; for children, it means something very different. Christmas now is as much or more about children, than it is about “the Child.”
The Santa Barbara Festival Ballet’s “Nutcracker” plays at 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 12, at the Arlington Theater, 1317 State St. Ticket prices range from $30-$58 and can be purchased in person at the Arlington box office, by phone at 805-963-9580, or online at https://santabarbarafestivalballet.com/buy-nutcracker-tickets.
The State Street Ballet “Nutcracker,” choreographed by Rodney Gustafson (additional choreography by Marina Fliagina, Gary McKenzie, Cecily MacDougall, and Megan Philipp), and orchestra conducted by Brian Asher Alhadeff, will play at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 18, and 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 19, both at the Granada Theater, 1214 State St.
Tickets are $26-$106, and can be purchased in person at the Granada box office, by phone at 805-899-2222, or online at https://ticketing.granadasb.org/16031/16034.
December is a month for dancers, and not just because of the “Nutcracker.” There are, for example, two non-“Nutcracker” dance events at Center Stage Theater (though, the second is rather closely related to the Tchaikovsky-Hoffmann ballet):
First, at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 15, and Thursday, Dec. 16, the Momentum Dance Company will present “Flourish,” which they describe as follows:
“Over the course of 90 minutes enjoy the performance of some of Santa Barbara’s most talented and diverse youth dancers. This show combines all ages and styles in a fun for the whole family show to get you in the holiday spirit! With energetic, Tap, Hip Hop, Jazz, and Contemporary dances, these dancers will get you up out of your seats!
“Witness choreography from the entire Momentum faculty including Pablo Gatica, Jaylyn Vaughan, Carly Visger, Landry Breaux, and Betsy Woyach, MDC’s director. Momentum can’t wait to share their love for dance with the Santa Barbara community this December.”
All tickets to “Flourish” are general admission ($35), and they can be purchased in person at the Center Stage box office, 751 Paseo Nuevo, by phone at 805-963-0408, or online at www.ticketor.com/cstheater/tickets/flourish-228840#buy.
Masks are required for all audience members, who also must show proof of vaccination or negative test result (taken within 72 hours of the event) along with a photo ID to be admitted to any performance.
And, at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 18, Inspire Dance Santa Barbara will present “Clara in the Land of Sweets,” which they describe as “a short showcase of our littlest dancers at the start of the show, and Performing Groups dancing the story of ‘Clara in the Land of Sweets,’ as well as our tap, lyrical and contemporary dancers performing.
“There will be swirling dancers, and silly mice along with your favorite Nutcracker characters. The story, which bears a striking similarity to ‘The Nutcracker,’ begins at a party where Young Clara receives a Nutcracker doll from her Auntie. Young Clara falls asleep later and dreams of her travels through the Snow Kingdom and the Land of Sweets as a ballerina.”
Tickets to “Clara” are $18 general admission, $15 for children ages 12 or under, $15 for seniors. Tickets can be purchased in person at the Center Stage box office, by phone at 805-770-5295, or online at www.ticketor.com/cstheater/tickets/clara-and-the-land-of-sweets-228917#buy.
Masks are required for all audience members, who must show proof of vaccination or negative test result (taken within 72 hours of the event) along with a photo ID to be admitted to any performance.
For all performances at Center Stage, late seating is on a limited basis, or not allowed at all once the performance begins. Please plan your arrival time accordingly.
(This is not intended as a comprehensive list.)
— Gerald Carpenter covers the arts as a Noozhawk contributing writer. He can be reached at email@example.com. The opinions expressed are his own.