The temperature has dropped to the 20s at night. Snow showers have been spotted in Sussex County, families are already shopping, trees in front lawns are being decorated with multi-colored lights, Santa’s elves are hard at work at the North Pole and chestnuts are waiting to be roasted on an open fire.
All the signs of the holiday season are there, but it’s not the holiday season until all the performances of the Nutcracker begin throughout the state. That Nutcracker magic starts on Friday when the McCarter Theater, in Princeton, hosts the state’s first Nutcracker, staged by the American Repertory Theater (through Nov. 28). On that same night, in Manhattan, the Nutcracker debuts at Lincoln Center, where it will be in a long residence through January 2.
No, it is not the holidays until the little kids are chased off to bed and the huge, evil mice arrive to harass them. It is not Christmas until the Nutcracker turns into the handsome Prince and the Sugar Plum Fairy arrives. It is not Christmas until the woman with dozens of rambunctious children under her enormous skirt floats across the stage. Not until the Nutcracker kids, Clara and Fritz, dazzle the audience. Not until that gorgeous music by Peter Tchaikovsky wafts through one New Jersey theater after another.
There will be plenty of Nutcracker productions, too, in addition to the one by the American Repertory Theater at McCarter. The big one, of course, is the Nutcracker staged by the New Jersey Ballet at the Mayo Performing Arts Center, in Morristown. That one kicks off Dec. 17 and runs through December 26, with several matinees for the kids. The N.J. Ballet will also stage the ballet December 4 and 5 at the Bergen Performing Arts Center in Englewood and December 12 at the Levitro Theater in Millville. Other Nutcrackers in the state are at the State Theater, in New Brunswick, December 17-19, with another Nutcracker there on January 2, the wild Hip Hop Nutcracker, directed by rapper Kurtis Blow, and at some smaller community theaters. All of them will celebrate Christmas and the holidays in a unique way because many Nutcrackers were not staged last year because of the Pandemic.
“Last year, because of Covid, we substituted virtual ballet ’history’ for the Nutcracker. We are all happy to be back with the Nutcracker,” said Kotoe Kajima-Noa, the N.J. Ballet’s marketing director.
She thinks the success of the Nutcracker has been pretty simple. “It’s a solid story with several central characters and a drama. It’s big. We have over 100 dancers in the show. Many ballets do not have solid stories. It appeals to the whole family, especially kids. Kids do understand the story just as well as their parents. Best of all is that the toys on stage come to life! Who doesn’t like that?”
The New Jersey Ballet has something else to celebrate, too. Thus is the 50th year of their staging of the holiday classic. Thousands of men, women and children have watched the Mouse King, Nutcracker, mice and the adorable little child stars, Clara and Fritz (the ballet is reaching out on its website for responses from anyone who ever appeared in any if its Nutcrackers).
Everyone agrees. “The Nutcracker here has over 100 performers. Multiply those times all those productions and you have a very large number of dancers. My own daughter saw the Nutcracker a few years ago and now she is in dance school,” said Sarah Rasmussen, artistic director of the McCarter Theater, which is premiering the state’s first Nutcracker on Friday, November 26.
All ballet companies say the Nutcracker is “tradition,” and it is. “We have people come as children and, 20 years, later, bring their kids. Better yet, we have people come as kids, then bring their own kids and then, and this happens a lot - the grand kids. Now that’s tradition,” said Ms. Kajima-Noa.
The McCarter’s Rasmussen agrees. “I loved it as a kid. A few years ago, I took my kids. It’s joyful and its very holiday, but really, it’s a ballet that kids can relate to. Mine loved it,” she said.
There are even a pair of Nutcracker performances that take on a New Jersey twist. Axelrod Contemporary Ballet Theater has "The Nutcracker Rocks" which includes a rock and roll score by The Gaslight Anthem's Alex Levine and Alex Rosamilia. Its story includes the traditional Land of Sweets as set in an Asbury Park candy store. Meanwhile Nimbus Dance presents "Jersey City Nutcracker" which, as the title implies, places the story in Jersey City itself. Even the characters are given a Jersey City twist!
The Nutcracker is a huge hit all over the world today, but it started out as a great big ballet flop, a dance debacle, when it premiered at the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, Russia, 1892, along with the opera Iolanta. The ballet is based on a short story by E.T.A. Hoffmann. Critics crucified it. They said the ballet was too long and boring. The first act was dreadful. Adults should have been the stars of the show, not two kids playing Clara and Fritz. The dance chorography was weak, the plot was confusing, the music as third rate and the sets were amateurish. The critics did not like anything about it.
Poor Tchaikovsky died a year later, unaware that over the years the Nutcracker would become a classic and his music hummed in the cities of the world (was not killed by the Mouse King but taken down by cholera).
The ballet’s growth in the United States started in 1954 when the New York City Ballet director, George Balanchine, saw what no one else saw in it. That winter he staged a spritely Nutcracker, pretty much what we have today, and it was a huge hit.
The Christmas dance today is so successful in New Jersey and throughout the U.S. that it generates nearly 50% of ticket sales for dance companies for the whole year. The Nutcracker revenue has kept many of them in business.
So let the snow fall and get in your sleigh for the trip over the river and through the woods to grandmother’s house. The Nutcrackers are here.
PHOTOS: (First) American Repertory Balley (Second) NJDTE Nutcracker Soldiers by Duncan Pettigrew (Third) The Hip Hop Nutcracker (Fourth) Axelrod's The Nutcracker Rocks