David and Art - "More Nutcrackers"

Dec 9, 2019

Different versions of a familiar ballet can remind us that art doesn't always have to look like we expect it to. 

Next Sunday the Waco Symphony Orchestra brings its performance of Tchaikovsky’s beloved ballet The Nutcracker back to the Waco Hall stage.  As it did last year, the orchestra is teaming up with a Fort Worth company called “Ballet Frontier” to give Waco audiences a treat that has become, for many people a fixture of Christmas.

Tonight, and for the next two nights, Ballet Frontier is performing the Nutcracker in Granbury, at the Opera House on the town square, although not with a live orchestra.  The company’s staging of the ballet is fairly traditional, but if you’ve seen many Nutcrackers, you know the wide variety of stagings, costumes, and interpretations that are out there. My personal favorite is the production by the San Francisco Ballet.  It’s resolutely Victorian in aesthetic with a street scene during the overture that may outrage purists but that situates you unmistakably in the City by the Bay, circa 1915. As the old saying goes, this isn’t your grandmother’s Nutcracker.

A couple of years ago the Moscow Ballet’s traveling production of “The Nutcracker” came through Waco.  I’ve written before about how Russian and American versions of “The Nutcracker” differ and that was evident here.  The men dancers were much more athletic in their movements than American audiences are accustomed to seeing, and more consistently airborne with their leaps.  As in most Russian productions of the ballet a significantly older girl danced the part of Clara which always changes the dynamic between her and the prince.

In this version also, a preposterously young Drosselmeyer kept showing up in the second act, muscling his way into dances where he never “should” have been. The party scene in Act One was so crowded it made Clara’s living room look more like a subway platform at rush hour. And so on.

Do these differences matter?

No, they really don’t. 

A good interaction with art has to involve being open to experiencing something new even in the middle of an old favorite.  It may not be immediately evident, but familiarity can actually hinder our ability to experience art in its fullest power. Ernest Hemingway once said he’d rather be able to read D.H. Lawrence’s novel “Sons and Lovers” again for the first time than have a guaranteed income of a million dollars a year. He understands it. The rest of us, however, tend to get comfortable — not to say fall into ruts — with our favorite pieces of art being presented in the same exact way, no less than we wind up taking the same route to work every day.

If an evening of art doesn’t involve a favorite composer, playwright, or painter, presented in just such a way, we can hesitate or get upset. But if we’re receptive to different interpretations of the familiar, we also become open to a richer appreciation of art itself.