It's not over until the Sugar Plum Fairy stops spinning ...
It finally finished last week. I imagine that thousands of parents around the world breathed collective a sigh of relief. It is now no longer possible to see a production of The Nutcracker until it all begins again next December. So, if you've missed it ... Bad Luck!
It strikes me as a strange tradition; The Nutcracker is such an enduringly popular ballet that it guarantees any company a full house at Christmas. It is a risk free money-spinner which stops up the gaps caused by riskier expenses at other times of the year. Apparently, forty percent of all annual ticket sales for US ballet companies comes from productions of The Nutcracker. That is not to say that it is a cheap production to stage. Numerous sets are required to illustrate Clara's descent and journey from the court-like world of middle class Prussia into something more anarchic and reckless in the pine forest and Land of Sweets. This is a miniature world packed with the dangers of warring mice, war-crazed gingerbread and spiteful black magic. Maintaining the costumes - never mind making them - must require the sort of budget which could keep a large family fed and clothed for several years. Not only does the production require a full company of dancers, it also demands a small army of supernumeraries, and - this is where we are involved - about 40 children for each performance. The cast is vast.
If ballet is an industry, then, during the Nutcracker, our children are workers on a production line: it's tirelessly repetitive, the hours are long and anti-social, and in terms of hierarchy, they are a strange underclass treated mainly with suspicion. Our son did nearly as many performances as there are days in the month, and all this was happening around normal family life at a time when we are completely stressing out about Christmas. We watched his mood change and his physical state deteriorate. He was jubilant, initially, with the applause of the audience ringing fresh in his ears. He enjoyed being part of a company - watching the dancers interact off-stage and listening to the make-up artists gossip. Despite the amount of sleep we were encouraging him to get and the vitamin supplements we were insisting on, he became paler and paler as time went on, and the rings around his eyes darker and darker. On one day he got up and suggested that he was unable to dance that day. It was a two-show-day just after Christmas. He was dancing a matinee and an evening, and he looked terrible. I took him to the stage door. It may seem cruel, but this is the life he has chosen. I want him to understand the reality of it as soon as possible. To be fair, he wasn't complaining and throughout this arduous period, he never expressed reluctance or regret. I explained to one of the chaperones that he was looking unwell and that she could call me if he was too unwell to perform. I fully expected a call between matinee and evening performance, but none came. He danced in both. I stood with the other parents that evening - shivering at the stage door and huddled for warmth like Dickensian characters outside a work house - and he appeared smiling and relieved. He was still jubilant, but this jubilation was muted.
For the performances, our children are drilled over and over again. Every day off requires a rehearsal before the next performance, even though the children have danced it numerous times before. There are people who are paying hundreds of pounds for their tickets, and they are not paying all this money to see a load of kids mucking around, and missing their cues. For their hundreds of pounds, they expect precision and a flawless perfection that is beyond most youngsters; and for performance after performance, our children deliver.
People often express horror when they learn that our children do not get paid to dance. I understand this reaction, but this treatment of our children does not surprise me. I may have learned to appreciate ballet, but I am under no illusion about how this particular world works. Beneath the beauty lies excruciating pain. And I do not think our children are really being exploited. It might have been relentless, but the rewards were immense. He has gained understanding and insights that otherwise would have been unlikely - he has witnessed the adult world of work, and experienced ballet company life at its most busy and involved. There's no comparison with the children in Indonesia mining metal for our smart phones.I hope that all the other children in other Nutcracker companies all over the world have had such a positive experience.
Also, I find it curious. The Nutcracker is a story full of darkness. It is full of cruelty - a father and son separated, punishment for the oppressed middle classes, tyrannous mice, and a child lost in an anarchic and confusing world. It concludes with a clear moment of sexual awakening. If the story hadn't been oddly appropriated by the cultivated ballet world as their Christmas money maker, it would probably lurk in the shadows of story-telling like the fairy-tales of the brothers Grimm, or Alice in Wonderland, or the stories of Saki. I'll go and see it again next year, and think about it. But for now the Sugar Plum Fairy has stopped spinning.