One night in late November, I was lying in bed thinking about this December column. I wanted to write about the absence of The Nutcracker this year, cancelled due to the coronavirus. The Bolshoi, the Mariinsky, and the Royal Ballet do plan to present live Nutcrackers; most other companies, however, will offer the ballet online. It’s a huge blow to their budgets—income from The Nutcracker keeps companies afloat. As for the audience, the ballet is variously a tradition, a treat, a Christmas spectacle, an aesthetic ritual. While I was wondering what the holidays would be like without the ballet, I heard our cat Esmé in the living room, a scrambling dash and thump. Then silence. Then another dash and thump. This was not the usual rhythm of her nocturnal play. I went out to find—EEEEEEEK—a mouse. It was wriggling in her mouth. The Nutcracker was happening in my home.

You may recall that this ballet, created in 1892 by Marius Petipa, Lev Ivanov, and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, is based on Alexandre Dumas’s retelling of an 1816 story by E. T. A. Hoffmann, “Nutcracker and Mouse King.” It’s a strange dream tale that juggles psychology, reality, and fantasy. In the book and in the ballet, it is the appearance of mice that signals the beginning of young Marie’s dream. Hoffmann writes, “Now a wild giggling and whistling started all around and virtually a thousand little feet were trotting and scurrying behind the walls and virtually a thousand little candle stubs were flickering through the cracks in the floorboards. Still these weren’t candle stubs, no! These were tiny, sparkling eyes. And Marie realized that mice were peering out and preparing themselves everywhere.”