Sexy Coffee and Racist Tea: Weird and Troubling Nutcracker Productions

Once upon a time six years ago, there was a very tiny toy soldier bravely marching into battle under the direction of her Nutcracker General to fight off the Mouse hordes. 

Several promotions later, that child soldier has grown into an Officer, dancing her first role en pointe in our local university's production of The Nutcracker. But just between us, the Mice really have the more righteous cause. So don't tell the Nutcracker General, but his Officer will be spending half her time secretly as a Mouse, menacing that brat Clara and bravely fighting her sometimes-comrades, the soldiers. 

I think the Mice might have a real chance to win this year!

It's time, then, for my third-favorite holiday of the year: Nutcracker season! 

Here's a Fun Holiday Game For You: Find the Weirdest and Most Troubling Nutcracker Productions

If I was still working on a PhD (if only PhD programs could be twenty years long, because it took at least fifteen years before I thought of my first original research idea that would have made a good thesis, ahem. And now I get good thesis ideas on the daily!), I would 100% be writing my thesis on regional Nutcracker productions as cultural artifacts that reveal and complicate our society's understanding of gender, sexuality, and race, as well as the male gaze when directed at female-presenting adolescents. 

Particularly that last one, ahem. I thought our local university's production was a little heavy on the child predator grooming a future victim vibes, and then I watched literally any other Nutcracker ever choreographed. Most of the productions I've seen have been choreographed by men, and they seem to have a very hard time visualizing a relationship between a male and female, even one with a fifty-year age gap where the female is supposed to be, like, twelve, that's not somehow gross. 

Other Nutcracker cliches to look out for include how heteronormative and cisgender are the children's casting, costumes, props and choreography; is the "Arabian Coffee" dance meant to be "sexy" or not; and how racist does the "Chinese tea" dance present? Our local university's production is pretty racist; it was only a very few years ago that they stopped putting a Fu Manchu mustache on the male lead, recently enough that I still worry every year that it might show up again.

Here's an interesting mini-documentary about how Ballet West addressed racism in the tea dance a few years ago:

Joffrey Ballet now also does a dragon dance, and a nearby university's production invites a local martial arts school to do some sweet moves onstage during that number. 

Every November, then, in the lead-up to The Nutcracker, it's my personal mission to find the weirdest and/or most troubling productions. Partly, I just think it's interesting to see how different choreographers handle the exact same music and same basic plot. Partly, it's just me processing my sour grapes--like, sure, they make my kid dance in pants and ugly wigs every single year even when wearing that pretty party dress and having her hair in curls was her one dream and they 100% gave her height-related body dysmorphia for a while when she finally caught on that it was always the shortest girl who scored Clara, but hey, at least nobody's in blackface in OUR production! But partly, I also like to see how our various societal tropes are expressed in this one cultural commonality. You know, who's doing something different on purpose, and why? Who thought they were doing something different but it's just an even more overt expression of that same cliche? Who's tapped into a way to empower and include artists and audience, and who's actively fighting against equity and diversity?

Dutch National Ballet: The Nutcracker and the Mouse King

Many years ago during Nutcracker season, we found a Nutcracker production on YouTube that has, to date, the most bonkers plot twist imaginable: the Mice WIN the battle against the Nutcracker and take all of the child soldiers captive, including Clara's own brother, Fritz, who was commanding the toy soldier army. We were all, like, "Okay, that was weird," and moved onto the Snow Scene, after which Act 1 ends with Drosselmeyer leading Clara and the Nutcracker Prince into... his film projector, I think? There, for some reason, the Mouse King and his army appear again and this time the Nutcracker defeats him and now all the Divertissements dance while Clara and the Prince act cute and Drosselmeyer bops in and out occasionally like a matchmaking Gollum.

So we're just happily watching the Divertissements when Arabian begins with a guy cracking a whip, and then onto the stage stumble enslaved people wearing ragged clothing and chains. The male lead starts his dance, but then one of the enslaved men tries to escape and is dragged back by one leg and starts to dance this weirdly homoerotic S&M pas de deux with the Arabian lead and we all realize--OMG, that's FRITZ!!! Fritz has been sold into slavery to the Arabian dancer! He's got makeup bruises and his clothes are ripped and he's in manacles and now he's rolling around on the floor while the Arabian dancer thrusts over him and it is WILD. 

Every year since, we've tried to find this specific Nutcracker, but never ran across it again. But a couple of nights ago, in a completely hysterical fit of insomnia, I was all, "This is my mission. I will not rest until I have found this fever dream of a Nutcracker." I Googled various search terms involving Nutcracker, Fritz, and "abducted," "enslaved," and "kidnapped," etc. And finally, I cracked it! Welcome, Friends, to the Dutch National Ballet's production of The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, choreographed by Toer van Schayk and Wayne Eagling. That YouTube version we watched absolutely was a bootleg of a 2011 filmed and streaming version (if your state university library has a subscription like mine does, you can watch it there), but at least right now you can also watch the 2021 production here

Also notable about this production: there's real ice skating in the Prologue and Apotheosis, Fritz tries to spy on his sister while she's changing clothes, and they skip Mother Ginger entirely.

Mariinsky Ballet: The Nutcracker

This is a fun one to watch, even before it gets super weird at the end, because the Mariinsky Ballet in St. Petersburg is famous for holding the very first production of The Nutcracker in 1892. Fun fact: audiences HATED IT! They thought, in particular, that it was so stupid to have children dancing in a professional production. Especially funny considering that child dancers are now The Nutcracker's biggest draw. The Mariinsky must have learned its lesson, because even though there are a few children's roles in this production, even Act I Masha and Fritz are played by full-grown adults acting like children. I love when they age Masha up for Act II so that she can do some proper dancing, but otherwise, full-grown adults acting alongside children while pretending to be their same age is a little Adam Sandler for my tastes.

This is the production choreographed in 2001 by Mikhail Chemiakin. At least right now, there's a 2007 production of Mariinsky Ballet's The Nutcracker available on YouTube:

Its portrayal starts off very comic and kid-friendly, with lots of funny noses and giant props and some pratfalls in Act I, and a low-key Voldemort-looking Drosselmeyer who obviously seethes with jealousy every time Masha and the Nutcracker Prince make goo-goo eyes at each other. Drosselmeyer also seems to maybe be in some kind of charge of the mice, who don't look very mouse-like and I really hope they're not actually caricatures of Jewish people. 

To get to the actual BONKERS part of the production, though, you have to hang on until the absolute last seconds of the performance, when Drosselmeyer raises a curtain to reveal that many of the characters are actually the treats in his candy shop. Masha and the Nutcracker Prince, who'd just finished up a joyful and romantic dance right before the curtain closed, are now revealed as the candy toppers on a giant wedding cake.

And y'all, crawling all over the cake and actively eating it as the curtain finally closes ARE THE MICE. THEY ARE LITERALLY GOING TO EAT MASHA AND THE PRINCE. 

My guess is that Drosselmeyer got fed up and figured hell, if he can't have Masha, might as well feed her to the mice.

Also notable about this production: the Arabian female lead is dressed in a skin-tight snakesuit and accompanied by snake puppets, and the poor Nutcracker Prince has to keep his horrifying Nutcracker mask on for an ungodly long time. There's also a DVD of a different Mariinsky Ballet Nutcracker production, originally choreographed by Vasily Vainonen in 1934, that's more wholesome than weird. Syd and I saw this in the theatre with her ballet buddies one year, and it's adorable.

New/Adventures: Nutcracker!

So, were you thinking that it might actually be easier in the long run just to traumatize your children with a terrifying Nutcracker production as young as possible so that they don't ask for expensive ballet lessons? 

Well, have I got the Nutcracker for you! 

Instead of casting children, let's cast adults who make big, childish movements and huge facial expressions in an uncanny valley version of childhood.

Instead of setting the scene in a wealthy household hosting an opulent Christmas party for all their rich friends, let's have Act I take place in an orphanage with a co-ed dormitory full of miserable adult-children. The grown men acting like little boys will also wear nightshirts that expose their legs to the upper thigh.

Instead of giving the kids dolls and drums and a random nutcracker, let's give them creepy shit like a ventriloquist's dummy and a working pistol. Fritz will literally shoot an orphan with the pistol, and the dummy will come to terrifying life just before the orphans revolt and one of them saws the head off of the headmaster, who is dressed in leather and wields some kind of stick... a riding crop, maybe?

Welcome to New/Adventure's Nutcracker!, choreographed in 1992 by Michael Bourne. It's not for children! 

Again, we watched this production several years ago on YouTube, in what must have been an excellent year for Nutcracker bootlegs, but right this second it's also available via a bootleg on Vimeo

If you don't watch the production with your kids, it's got some interesting moments that make it pretty fun. I can't completely figure out if it's Clara's little orphan buddy or the ventriloquist dummy who eventually is reincarnated as the Prince, but regardless, he's reincarnated shirtless, and their pas de deux would be charming and low-key sexy if the full-grown adult playing Clara didn't have to keep making those weird little kid faces and gestures. The overture to Act II that's normally danced by very little children playing angels or trees is danced by adults with wings wearing pajamas. Maybe they're dead orphans? It's also fun seeing how much sexual innuendo and camp and just plain bizarreness they can work into all of the Divertissements. 

In the end, Clara wakes back up in her orphanage, but who's hiding in her bed? Why, it's that hunky Prince again! 

Also notable about this production: Clara gets to dance blissfully with a whole troop of shirtless dudes, and she looks like she's having a fabulous time. The Arabian and Chinese dances aren't at all racist. And the Russian dance is, I think, a gay football theme?

Okay, I thought that I was going to monologue about all of my weird Nutcracker finds all in one place, but I actually have to go put a certain Mouse's hair up in milkmaid braids and then change into my black clothes for backstage and then drive her to campus for her stage rehearsal and then go chaperone the Party Scene children during dress rehearsal while my Mouse fights a battle and then check all the Party Scene kids back out to their parents and then collect my hopefully victorious Mouse and then drive us home and then eat Pizza Rolls in bed while watching hockey and then fall asleep without washing my face, so let's talk about weird Nutcrackers again later, okay?

And if you write your PhD thesis on the subject, send me a copy!