WOODLAND PARK, NJ — “The Nutcracker,” you’ll remember, starts with a war.
Mice have invaded the living room! Calling all toys! Tin soldiers, defending their homeland under the Christmas tree, have put up a brave fight. But what can they do against a terrible seven-headed Mouse King, determined to annex more territory?
Eventually our heroine kills him with a bedroom slipper.
Vladimir Putin may not be disposed of so easily. As the war in Ukraine, 10 months and counting, drags into the Christmas holiday, the troubling question arises: What to do about Russia’s most famous export?
“The Nutcracker” is a cherished part of the season for millions of us. Every December, in every part of America, Nutcrackers are as plentiful as fruitcakes.
In addition to the famous New York City Ballet production, choreographed by George Balanchine, that began the “Nutcracker” craze in 1954, there are all the Nutcrackers put on by local ballet schools, the touring ballet companies that rely on “The Nutcracker” as their annual cash cow, the never-ending supply of jazz “Nutcrackers,” hip hop “Nutcrackers,” rock “Nutcrackers,” Brooklyn “Nutcrackers,” Harlem “Nutcrackers.”
But this year’s “Nutcracker” may be a tougher nut to crack.
This year, Tchaikovsky’s delightful music is apt to remind people, not just of sugar-plums and bonbons, but also its country of origin — a country that invaded a smaller neighbor, killing 6,490 civilians (so far) at the whim of a possibly unstable dictator who has threatened the use of nuclear weapons. Merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year.
Nuts to Nutcracker?
Of course Tchaikovsky, who wrote the “Nutcracker” score in 1892 and died in 1893, can hardly be blamed for what the Duma does in 2022. Neither can American ballet companies.
To boycott “The Nutcracker” — especially the local productions, whose personnel are usually as American as Coca-Cola — makes even less sense than boycotting those Russian gas stations whose franchise owners are, as they loudly remind us, not Russian.
Still, the Ukraine invasion is the elephant in the room. “The Nutcracker” is one of the few Russian products that crosses the average person’s threshold, in one form or another, each year. It doesn’t seem right — some would say — to let the occasion pass without comment.
One ballet company, at any rate, isn’t about to do so.
“Our hearts are broken and we cry for the tragic war in Eastern Europe,” said producer Akiva Talmi, founder of Talmi Entertainment, and himself the son of Ukrainian immigrants.
Talmi, which has been sending its unique take on “The Nutcracker” out to some 140 cities in North America each winter since 1992, used to call its production “Moscow Ballet’s Great Russian Nutcracker.”
As of this year, it’s been renamed “Nutcracker! Magical Christmas Ballet.”
Its heroine used to be called “Masha.” Now it’s “Clara.”
Actually, as balletomanes know, the name of the heroine has always varied, depending on the production. Some call her Masha, some Clara, some Marie.
Still, you might suspect that the change to a less specifically Russian name, this year, is not a coincidence. And you might be right.
“In light of current world events, the emphasis is no longer on Russia as much as it is on promoting international peace,” said Manon Mirabelli, director of Public Relations for Talmi, based in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.
This season, after a two-year COVID hiatus, their “Nutcracker” will be out among us again.
“Art is universal,” Talmi said. “Artists travel and perform all over the world as ambassadors of art, culture and humanism.”
Even before Ukraine, his take on “The Nutcracker” was more universal than most.
Instead of a Land of Sweets as the second-act locale, his version features a Land of Peace and Harmony — not such a stretch, given that Tchaikovsky’s music in this scene is a potpourri of international dances.
And instead of a Sugar Plum Fairy, this “Nutcracker” gives its pas de deux to a unique “Dove of Peace,” formed by the coming together of two dancers. New this year is a flock of eight puppet doves on sticks. “We have the dancers holding them up like a flock that goes by,” Talmi said.
Puppets are an important part of this production. An “African” elephant, an “Asian” dragon, a “Slavic” — not Russian — bear, all speak to the peaceful kingdom of our fondest hopes, where animals and humans all get along. “It’s always been our mission to promote peace, but it’s more relevant this year than ever,” Mirabelli said.
Give peace a chance
The “peace” theme is important to Talmi who — growing up in Israel — didn’t see enough of it. “The peace mission started as a reaction,” he said.
It’s equally important to the 40 dancers in the production, who are an international crew. One major exception: No Russians. Not because anyone would ban them — but because so many have been conscripted for war.
There are, however, Ukrainian dancers. One is Anna Trofimova, from Lviv, who plays Clara’s mother and is also featured in the “Slavic” dance. “I’ve been dancing since I can remember,” she said.
“The Nutcracker,” she said, is part of the world’s heritage. One of the nicer parts. “[We] dance in spite of everything, give people a fairy tale and enjoy every moment of our stay on stage,” she said.
Who, in 2022, wouldn’t Want to spend an evening in The Land of Peace and Harmony? Perhaps this year, peace is all the candy we need.
Anyway, Talmi is putting it out there.
“We’ve increased our advocacy, plea and yearning for peace,” he said.