“The Nutcracker,” the choreographer George Balanchine said repeatedly, ”is the tree.” The Christmas tree, of course. But what, exactly, does that mean? I’ve been a dance critic for decades, have seen countless Nutcrackers, and still I ponder the score, the scenario, and the new interpretations introduced by new stagings of the ballet. Viewed as child’s play, The Nutcracker, which premiered in 1892, is deemed a cultural toy—akin to one of Herr Drosselmeier’s magical automatons—to be enjoyed during the holidays and then put back in a cabinet. But the more you listen to it, and the more you read and think about it, the deeper the questions.
For instance, which is more sublime: the snow-laden andante that comes at the end of Act One, or the magisterial Sugar Plum adagio that crowns Act Two? The first is primal, a snow-blue bliss amid a forest of firs; the second is proudly poised, a formal statement of courtliest love; yet both have dark contours, achingly so, as if to say that all perfection is shadowed by loss. And what does the Land of Sweets represent? Children read it differently than do adults, who have another context for pleasure. And then, the tree. The Mariinsky choreographer who shaped the story for the stage, Marius Petipa, wrote in note No. 21 to the composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, “The Christmas tree becomes huge. 48 bars of fantastic music with a grandiose crescendo.” Yet who decided it should become huge? This is what I’ve been wondering lately.