Ballet is an art form born out of the expressionism and creativity of the Renaissance period (Kraus 63). From the first ballet performed in 1580 to the present, women have been portrayed as fragile and dependent on men. One such ballet is The Nutcracker in which the girl-heroine Clara relies on the Nutcracker to save her from the evil Mouse King. The first production of The Nutcracker was performed for critics, public figures, and members of high society and received lack luster reviews on December 17, 1892 (Anderson 40-52).
The story opens in the parlor of a middle-class German family, the Stahlbaums, during a party on Christmas Eve. Excitement fills the air in anticipation of the night’s festivities. The Stahlbaum children, shy Clara and her brother Fritz, are caught in the enchantment of the evening. Guests arrive and presents are exchanged; all this is a typical Christmas scene, until the magic begins. Drosselmeyer, Clara’s godfather, arrives late with his nephew, a boy near Clara’s age, and a nutcracker for Clara. Clara very much likes Drosselmeyer’s charming and courteous nephew and is also fond of her strange new toy.
With the last dance, the party is brought to an end. Clara, unable to sleep, creeps downstairs for one last look at her nutcracker. She falls asleep on the sofa holding the nutcracker in her arms. Clara is awakened to the peculiar sounds of scurrying and rustling. The Christmas tree lights have turned on again, as it grows bigger and bigger. All of the toys, including Clara’s nutcracker, have come to life. Suddenly mice invade the room with intentions to rob and plunder. Under the leadership of the fearsome Mouse King, the mice begin to attack the dolls.
The dolls retaliate under the leadership of the Nutcracker, but are unable to fight off their enemy. The Nutcracker, left unharmed, engages in a duel with the Mouse King. He appears to be losing when Clara throws her slipper at the Mouse King. This distracts the Mouse King enabling the Nutcracker to deal a final blow to the Mouse King. The mice scatter, and the toys are saved. The Nutcracker thanks Clara and is transformed into Drosselmeyer’s nephew. He takes Clara to the palace in the Land of Sweets ruled by the Sugarplum Fairy.
Young Drosselmeyer impresses the Sugarplum Fairy with his tale of the night’s adventure. As a reward, she promises the children great entertainment. Performing for them are dancers representing tea, coffer, hot chocolate, and candy canes. A flower garden also waltzes for the children, and the most impressive dance is that for the Sugarplum fairy and her Prince. When the party comes to an end, Clara is whisked back home (Anderson 9-13). There are various ways in which The Nutcracker displays what is believed to be a woman’s place in society.
Through the children’s actions, one is able to see a clear distinction between male and female gender rolls. Clara is a sweet and innocent girl, and her brother, Fritz, is a scamp always causing trouble (Anderson 9). Clara is shown a world in which girls play with dolls and learn to be nurturing mothers and boys train to be brave soldiers. Throughout the party scene Clara holds and cares for her Nutcracker as if it were a baby. The Nutcracker also displays a woman’s dependence on a man. Clara must rely on the Nutcracker Prince to save her from the Mouse King.
She can throw her slipper to distract the evil Mouse King, but it is the Nutcracker who gives the Mouse King a mortal wound (Banes 60). Ultimately, The Nutcracker is Clara’s girlhood dream of love and marriage. In the Land of Sweets, Clara is finally able to be with her prince and with shining eyes adores him (Balanchine 249-253). The Nutcracker also restores the ideal that marriage for gentry women is sweet, pleasant, and fulfilling. In the metaphoric wedding feast in Act II, Clara is calm and docile watching the various antics, but not participating, which also represents a utopian image matrimony.
This illustrates the ideal that a woman is there for support of her husband and should be happy in doing so. It also shows that a woman needs a man to tell her what to do because otherwise she does not know what to do or think. Women are also represented in ballet and The Nutcracker through their costume. At one time ballet was seen as no more than an excuse for shapely women to prance around while scantily dressed. Even though this is not true now, women in ballet are still dressed in a manner that portrays them as sexual objects.
The typical costume of a ballerina is a leotard in which a ballerinas arms and back are bare and her legs are covered only by tights, such as the Sugarplum Fairy in The Nutcracker. Even Clara, while she is only a girl, is costumed in a manner that reveals her bust. When on pointe, a ballerina’s legs are purposely elongated and her hair is pulled in a bun to display her long neck and back. Such dress flatters a ballerina who is to be admired for her grace and beauty. The Nutcracker takes place in two worlds: dream and reality, and in both worlds, Clara is dependent on a man to guide her.
It is very meaningful that even in Clara’s own dream she is being lead by the Nutcracker. This helps further display the belief that a woman not only needs but also wants a man to tell her what to do. Despite being an outdated story for our modern times, The Nutcracker remains a holiday favorite. Some could not imagine Christmas time without watching the dance of the Sugarplum Fairy or the battle of the Mouse King and The Nutcracker. Maybe it is the beautiful dancing, the magical Christmas scenes, or the romantic story, but no matter what, is seems The Nutcracker is here to stay.