Dear Nutcracker -
You’ve probably heard all this before. If I Googled “Nutcracker capitalist spectacle” I would probably (hopefully) find some really good stuff. But right now I’m bursting with the need to write you this letter, so I’m putting off perfection and typing furiously instead.
Given pretty much everything about where we are, Nutcracker, I need to tell you that I have no patience for you anymore.
It was just a sweet local production, really. I didn’t even need to drive down 101 in holiday traffic to reach the city, where undoubtedly the sets include giant lollipops and real fake falling snow. First, as I sat in Row C at the end of a line of elementary school students, I was merely annoyed. You know what I hate? I thought. I hate (and yes, I know that’s a really strong word) how this opening scene so blatantly reinscribes conventional gender roles. Over and over and over, every single year, in small rickety theaters and big glitzy professional theaters, the repetition is mind-numbing when you stop to think about it. The awkwardly graceful aspiring girls, the cloying Clara, about to undergo some incomprehensibly unnecessary initiation at the whim of Drosselmeyer, the naughty, destructive boys. The boys! Even when girls play the boys, they are enacting and exaggerating the ways they’ve been told boys act. That’s not gender-bending. That’s norm-enforcing. And in this production, they couldn’t stop themselves. The nose-thumbing, finger-waggling, skirt-grabbing annoyance of the boys. My 8-year-old boy is not like that, and neither are many of the boys I know. The director, the choreographer, could make other choices. I was ready to scream, Why are you doing this? But I didn’t. I was a chaperone. They’re just kids.
And then during the snowflake dance, I was hit by a minor anxiety attack. My breathing got shallow, dangerously unpredictable. I laid my hands on my thighs and focused on my feet, firm on cold concrete, to ground myself. Why the hell were the snowflakes making me anxious? I hadn’t felt like that in weeks. Even the harried bustle of holiday shopping was not getting to me lately. I’ve been meditating. So what was up?
And then it hit me. I was more than annoyed, or uninterested in staying — I was angry! And I didn’t know how to change things, how to get out. The weight of all these years (decades! more than a century!) of girls and boys and men and women dancing a routine of normalcy felt heavy inside my chest, and a word washed over me: boring. Nutcracker, at your best that’s what you are. I was feeling anxious because you are so unbelievably boring, and it felt like too much. You’re not even a real fairy tale. Where’s the lineage? Where’s the darkness? Who in the world is the Sugar Plum Fairy, and why? Where’s the gauntlet of challenges? The simplistic toy soldier triumph over furry vermin does not count! It’s literally manufactured! And Clara’s throwing of the shoe is so frustratingly meek! After this year of women speaking truth to power, and taking it for themselves, I just have no patience for this.
And where’s the rich, dark nourishment? You’re not just a boring plot line, Nutcracker. You actually have boredom buried deep inside of yourself. Skilled dancers and glorious sets cannot mask this. For the entire length of the second act Clara just sits and passively watches. And she doesn’t even get to watch any raunchy, unpredictable stuff. She watches a shallow parade of cultural appropriation and colonial economic dominance. Sugar, please! Coffee, tea, cocoa, exoticism. Right here in front of her and us, smiling brightly, in something like gratitude for being able to perform a royal charade — this is it.
Nutcracker, every single dance director in this entire damn world should be required to read Sidney Mintz’s Sweetness and Power before staging you ever, ever again.
Because Nutcracker, this is what you are: colonialism in a stage-sized nutshell, a global economy of spectacle and saccharine built on the backs of people of color, put down, pigeonholed, bodies valued only for the labor and pleasure and products they can offer the audiences and consumers of the global North. Ballet — that most aristocratic of art forms — pumped up with sugar like the industrial working classes in the historical moment of your invention, 1892, infiltrating children’s understandable dreams. Boredom and violence and spectacle — buried deep inside yourself. When I saw the small “Chinese tea dancers” wearing the cheap pajamas and waggling their fingers I nearly lost it (again). We don’t have to make these choices anymore. We can be done with this.
And then, sitting in the dark, with multicolored lights glaring from the sides of the stage, my mind wanders, but in a critical groove. I remember Lego Chima, the “soft” militarized Lego line that my son wanted me to buy for him for a while, when he was about six. We got some Lego Chima storybooks out of the library instead. The animal tribes in Chima fight over an energy source called “CHI” (a bowdlerized version of qi, and I can’t help noticing that autocorrect keeps wanting “Chima” to read “China” instead), and the tribes are all sorted and marked. The Lions are noble, fair, and live in the City — they are in charge of distributing Chi to everyone else. The Eagles are dreamy and loyal and smart. Their master inventor is a lioness who specializes in new battle tactics, but she exclaims, in a thread of cheap protest, “she would prefer all the tribes to be friends!” It’s not her fault, or the Lions’ fault — the “good guys’” fault — that they are not. For the Crocodiles are sneaky, slippery scoundrels; the Ravens are sly, deceitful, and messy; the Wolves only think of the pack. What can we do but keep conquering, keep taking, keep managing, keep watching the racialized spectacle unfold? Clara, just sit back and relax!
Watching my mind wander, watching my son sitting rapt at the other end of the row, watching the girl-candy canes twirl in their skirts, I felt the absurdity and enormity of it all. The ways that gender and conquest and consumption and ascriptions of difference entwine themselves tightly around the everyday. Around our sweetest things, our expectations and longings. The way there is a part of me that really does want to put blinders on, and just enjoy my holiday, damnit! Just enjoy the upturned faces in the half-dark, the ritual, the gifts and the greenery, the season. I am also yearning for that.
But Nutcracker, I see you clearly now. I cannot look away. Living in a world of sweets and incessant othering is not my idea of paradise, or even holiday vacation. It’s neither real abundance nor nourishment. It’s a sort of living capitalist hell. And here we are. Inside of it. The children are mesmerized. The parents are anxious. We fight over borders, to let goods flow in and keep people out. We are dancing it over and over, over and over, over and over again. Let’s not.
I did, truly, appreciate the labor of the dancers — their discipline and sinew and eagerness and sense of accomplishment. The fact that these are swallowed up in your spectacle is part of the greater sadness. Nutcracker, there’s no way around it. I am done with you. I plan on living happily without you forevermore. That’s the fairy tale inside of today. I am happy to have seen this in the field trip half-light.
There’s too much actual wonder in the actual ravishing world. This is what I wish for all the children in all the countless audiences, blooming like fractals across the land; for all the dancers on all the stages, for all the Claras sitting on their spun-sugar thrones; for all the people just now reaching, for something to hold, in the seasonal dark:
The depths of actual stories, built from bone and fear and hope and intelligence and blood.
And honest grappling with critical questions.
And someday, when the time is right, skin-on-skin entanglement, with love.
And homemade soup, and rough warm bread.
Happy holidays, Nutcracker. May you waltz yourself into the halls of decaying cultural dreams, replete with mirrors and gilt ceilings and copious yet shadowy dishes. May you keep good company there, and not come out to bother us. And in the depths of this season, may something more vibrant, more complex, more demanding, grow and surface instead.