British Christmas can’t go without a panto or The Nutcracker. Loving this two-act ballet, I was also wondering, as a Hispanophile, why this Christmassy production features Spanish Dance as a part of the attraction. Is there any relationship between Spanish-ness and The Nutcracker?
Many faces of the Nutcracker
The Nutcracker was created in 1892 with a score composed by Pyotr Ilyich Thaikocsky, based on E.T.A.Hoffmann’s tale ‘The Nutcracker and the Mouse King’. Originally choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, the ballet has been reimagined, retold, rechoreographed in numerous versions worldwidely by different ballet companies.
Despite the multiplicity, the fantastic storyline is more or less the same: Clara (or Marie, or Masha) was given a nutcracker doll for a Christmas gift, which turns to a young boy, and both are invited to the Kingdom of Sweets where they’re entertained by a variety of dance performances. Spanish Dance normally appears as such a party piece.
Details differ according to ballet companies and choreographers, so that there are so many variations in terms of the plot, characters and choreographies. If, like me, you’re used to the version of Sir Peter Wright, first staged in 1984, you’d be amazed by the different approaches by other choreographers, such as George Balanchine in the USA since 1954, Yuri Grigorovich in Russia since 1966, or other names. Although their stagings aren’t familiar to British audiences, those are also accredited as classic in their cultural bases. Just like Christmas itself, we have different traditions respectively.
The Realm of Sweets
The Balanchine’s adaptation, for example, casts children, not professional adult dancers, as the main boy and girl. In the second act characterised as the Realm of Sweets, the individual dance pieces are meant to represent teatime drinks or sweets: Arabian Dance is called Coffee, Chinese Dance is Tea, Russian Dance is associated with Candy Canes, Danish or French (it depends) Mirliton Players are supposed to be Marzipans. There is even a character called Mother Ginger, usually performed by a man just like the dame in a Christmas panto, and Polichinelles as her children, who might be unknown to some ballet fans..
In the well-received UK edition, in this case the one created by Sir Peter Wright, the second act is supposed to be the Kingdom of Sweets, almost the same concept. However, the only role we can directly associate with confections is the Sugar Plum Fairy. In this interpretation, it seems the party focuses more on culturally diverse fun than a childlike analogy to sweetmeats. Arabic Dance, Chinese Dance, Russian Dance, Mirlitons, they don’t explicitly show any relations to particular drinks or desserts, as the connections aren’t very clear unless explained.
Then, how about Spanish Dance? It looks no more than a type of national dance from Spain, but according to Balanchine’s or other similar adaptations, it’s Chocolate. Yes, Spain is… Chocolate.
Chocolate and Spain
As widely known, Spain is the first European country that tasted chocolate. Brought from South America in the 16th century, cacao beans were initially consumed in Spain as a bitter medicine, then as a sweetened beverage. Based on this historical background, Balanchine’s and some other editions utilise the Spanish Dance to express chocolate-ness in the Realm of Sweets.
In the modern era, however, the word chocolate rather reminds us of other countries, such as Belgium, and we don’t usually associate it with Spain anymore. Furthermore, if the synopsis of the ballet doesn’t mention the word, you can’t detect the cacao flavour in the dance itself.
In The Nutcracker restaged by Sir Peter Wright, which I love, the dance pieces in the second act don’t quite look like desserts for kids anymore, but the Spanish Dance is still a part of the entertainment for the invited guests, just like other international dances. Although the chocolate-coating might have melted away, the Spanish Dance itself remains as pure, and decorates the festivity with its refined flavour.
Hot Chocolate Nutcracker
As of now, we have an even more creative approach to the chocolate-ness and The Nutcracker. The Debbie Allen Dance Academy (DADA), a non-profit organisation led by the famous entertainer, has been presenting an annual showcase of ‘Hot Chocolate Nutcracker’ performed by young dancers of diverse backgrounds in terms of race, culture and economy.
The word ‘chocolate’ here refers not to a short dance piece as a part of the show, nor to a single country. Rather, it coats the entire show, beyond the boundary. The concept of accessibility and diversity makes the ballet more enriching than traditional versions. It’s warm, inclusive and sweet - just like real hot chocolate.
Such an innovative production doesn’t, however, outdate the so-called traditional interpretations of The Nutcracker. There are also many more recreations of this ballet that I couldn’t include here. We simply have many flavours to appreciate this Christmas.
Let’s have a cup of nice hot chocolate, or a box of chocolates, or anything else related to chocolate, and enjoy The Nutcracker of your favourite version.
(Note: The Nutcracker live streaming by the Royal Ballet was cancelled due to London's Tier 4 status... I've therefore deleted the link, and added the link of the English National Ballet online streaming instead. It's a different version, but nice.)
Nutcracker Delights by the English National Ballet: available online until 23rd January 2021 (Wayne Eagling)
*The DVD links below are not for affiliate but for a purpose of personal support for the Royal Opera House. Please note that the shop (both offline and online) is closed for Christmas, but will reopen in January.
The Nutcracker DVD by the Royal Ballet (Peter Wright)
The Nutcracker DVD by New York City Ballet (George Balanchine)
The Nutcracker DVD by the Bolshoi Ballet (Yuri Grigorovich)
Debbie Allen Dance Academy
Dance Dreams: Hot Chocolate Nutcracker | Official Trailer | Netflix
George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker: Spanish (Miami City Ballet)