The Nutcracker Ballet and Me

Now that Thanksgiving break has passed and the end of the semester is rapidly approaching, it’s time to start thinking about the holiday season. Everybody has their own traditions, whether it’s a specific food only served during the holidays, a favorite movie that the whole family watches, or a ritual, like going out on Black Friday.

For me personally, one of the things I look forward to the most around Christmas time is seeing The Nutcracker Ballet. I can’t really remember how this tradition started for me, because I don’t remember the first time I watched it or heard about it. Much like Christmas itself, the Nutcracker Ballet is just something that’s been a fixture in my life for as long as I can remember.

I have several cousins who took dance lessons and a dance teacher for an aunt, so I came by ballet naturally. I can vividly remember being four or five-years-old, watching my cousins perform in a local youth production of the Nutcracker and being absolutely enthralled by it. All I wanted was to be like the beautiful dancers on stage, so I started taking lessons, and finally got to be in the Nutcracker when I was seven. Of course, I ended up with a cute little role that didn’t actually involve any dancing, but every year I came back and every year I got bigger parts and got to dance more.

Even though it was the busiest time of year, the Nutcracker was almost the most fun time of year when I was little, especially leading up to the performances. During tech week, I got to stay up way past my bedtime to be at rehearsal, where I could hang out with my friends and watch all the dancers. Plus, every year I got to skip a day of school to perform in the “school show,” which was for field trip groups. The weekend of performances-almost always threatened by some kind of snow storm-were complete pandemonium, but I loved every minute of it. I felt very grown-up being backstage, putting on my makeup and my hairpieces and getting to wear the gorgeous costumes.

When I was 12, my usual annual Nutcracker treat was supplemented because my grandmother took my mother, my sister and me to see Boston Ballet’s production of the Nutcracker for Christmas. I’d been performing with the same group for five years by that point, so I’d had that production memorized, but being able to watch a different company-and a professional company with actual, adult, professional ballerinas and in the real, honest-to-goodness Boston Opera House-was an unforgettable experience. It was one of those truly transformative moments, one of those moments where you’re so happy that all you want is to be that happy for the rest of your life.

Around that time, though, my local production of the Nutcracker was becoming a little less fun for me. At 13, you could start trying out for roles on pointe. I hadn’t started pointe yet, though, so the number of roles I qualified for was limited. (They were even further limited by the fact that the directors played favorites and gave the same kids the good parts every year, but that’s a different story.) I was also older and just getting to be too busy for the show. It was fun as a nine-year-old to stay at rehearsals and shows until 11 o’clock every night, but as a high school student with other commitments, it was too much.

I quit the Nutcracker when I was 16, after performing in it for nine consecutive years. I kept dancing with my own studio even after that, but after getting injured my senior year of high school, ballet has mostly been put on hold for now. But even after all the frustration, the Nutcracker is still extremely close to my heart. Every year I find some way to watch it multiple times. I don’t always make it to Boston Ballet’s production before it closes, but I own the Pacific Northwest Ballet’s version (with designs from children’s book author Maurice Sendak) on DVD. I also watch any version of it I can find playing on TV (especially Ovation’s “Battle of the Nutcrackers,”) and sometimes I’ll even stop by my old company’s production of it, just to see how the show has changed over the years.

I can’t pinpoint what exactly it is about the Nutcracker that I find so magical. Maybe it’s because I’m a fantasy nerd  and I’ve always been obsessed with stories that involve magic, transformations and journeys to other worlds. But I also think that nostalgia is a huge factor in why I love it so much. Whenever I drive around my hometown in the fall and winter, I think about being a little kid and being shuttled to Nutcracker rehearsals on the weekends. The Nutcracker is something that’s always stayed constant in my life for so many years, even if the way that it plays a role in my life now is different than the one it played when I was younger. I think everyone has these things in their life, the things that they can’t quite let go of and that stay important even after so many years. Moreover, I think it’s good to have these things. They’re a good measuring stick for how much you’ve grown but also good for reminding you of the ways that you’ve stayed the same, even after all these years.

What are your favorite, nostalgic holiday traditions? Let Atlas know in the comments!

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