During the holidays, I usually stick to doing the things I’ve always done. I enjoy delicious food, holiday movies, time with family, and plenty of sleep. There are, however, aspects to Christmas time that I sometimes forget. The Nutcracker ballet has gone hand-in-hand with the Christmas season since its initial debut on December 18, 1892 in St. Petersburg, Russia. The Christmas ballet made its way across the pond in 1944 for its first United States performance by the San Francisco Ballet. Though over the years the costumes, makeup, and dancers have changed and developed, the vivacious performance has remained entertaining and an abiding symbol of the Christmas Season. The Nutcracker ballet follows young Clara’s Christmas Eve dream. Through the night, Clara and her Nutcracker Prince battle the dreaded Rat King and watch as gorgeous, shimmering snowflakes dance in the Land of Snow. They meet the flawless, pink Sugar Plum Fairy in the Land of Sweets, and they tell her the tale of their battle with the Rat King. In return for their bravery and defeating the Rat, she rewards them with a multitude of graceful and jubilant dances. The Spanish, Arabian, Russian, and Chinese dancers amaze the two with their lively, colorful costumes and versatile movements, while the The Mirliton Dance and The Waltz of Flowers bring them peace with their grace and beauty. Finally, the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier perform an alluring and loving duet to end the dream. When Clara awakens, she is under the Christmas tree, holding her beloved new nutcracker.
In my youth, I attended performances of The Nutcracker by the Concert Ballet of Virginia every year. My grandmother, Ann Beazley Little, was a dear friend of the late founder of the company, Robert Watkins. It was a joy for her to take her nine grandchildren to the ballet each December. However, as we all grew older and life got busier, the tradition began to fade. This year, nearly ten years since my last Nutcracker performance, my sister Walker Surgner (‘11) surprised my mother and me with tickets to see the ballet at The Carpenter Theater. The performance was put on by The Richmond Ballet and was choreographed by Stoner Winslett. The ballet went on for 12 nights, from December 11 – December 23, and I attended the penultimate performance. One might expect the eleventh performance to be low energy or less enamoring; however, it was the complete opposite. The banner that read “The Nutcracker” when the curtain was raised was inviting and brought back thrilling memories of my past Nutcracker experiences. I couldn’t help but smile as my mom (and Collegiate’s Vice President for Advancement), Amanda Surgner (‘83), excitedly squeezed my hand and said “Don’t you just love it!” As the “Nutcracker” banner lifted and Tchaikovsky’s “Christmas Song” began to play, beautifully dressed dancers gracefully made their way on stage. Their ages may have varied, but the heart, energy, and excitement was consistent among all of the dancers for the entirety of the show. The complexity of the dances showed the incredible strength that each of the performers has. The pieces were well-rehearsed, lively, and magical. Whether it was the little lambs in the Mirliton Dance or the graceful Valerie Tellmann-Henning as the Sugar Plum Fairy sharing her joy of the season, the audience remained captivated by the magic and grace of the performance from start to finish.
Just before the end of the performance, I noticed both my sister and mother crying with smiles on their faces. Later, as we were leaving the theater, Walker explained that “everyone [the audience] joining in and being together made her happy enough to cry.” My mother agreed and added, “I’m just happy the tradition lives on.” The Nutcracker is a tradition that I hope I will be able to take my children to one day. Such a large group of people dressing up, coming together, and being genuinely content for even just a night is something truly special. “Richmond Ballet’s mission is to awaken and uplift the human spirit, both for audiences and artist” says Stoner Winslett when describing the mission of the Richmond Ballet. This mission is successfully accomplished in the performance of The Nutcracker. I constantly hear other high schoolers talking about exams and the stresses of wrapping up first semester preventing them from really “getting in the Christmas spirit.” Though this is true, I believe that there is a solution to this disgruntled state of mind. That solution is The Nutcracker ballet. I highly recommend branching out next holiday break and attending one of next year’s performances to truly obtain the glorious sensation that is “Christmas spirit.”