The stage was set. Many members of my family sat in the audience. I had a perfect bun on top of my head and a little rouge on my cheeks to make them look bright and merry. I was supposed to be one of the dancers who come out from under Mother Ginger's skirts in the classic "Nutcracker" ballet. I'm sure I had hit every mark during class and rehearsals leading up to the main performance. But that night, my 5-year-old self decided I was not going to perform, much to the chagrin of my parents.
The story goes that my mom even tried to bribe me with a new doll if I went on. My grandfather, a farmer who almost never left the ranch, had made the trek to see me. I should do it for him, she encouraged. But I wouldn't budge. The show went on without me, and Mother Ginger had one fewer ginger kid under her skirt.
This was my first foray into the institution that is "The Nutcracker." According to Moscow Ballet, "The Nutcracker" was first performed in December 1892 in St. Petersburg, Russia. Its U.S. debut was in San Francisco in 1944. The ballet's popularity has grown with time, extending across the country and into various media, including movies, books and plays.
"'The Nutcracker' has become synonymous with the holidays," says Ilena Norton, the director of Ballet Ariel Company and School. "It's a holiday event that has become a tradition."
Norton started her company in 1998 on the premise of performing classical ballet with a twist. Wanting to make ballet accessible and relevant to the casual observer was one of Norton's goals, which is why she sometimes changes the classic ballet stories to make them more relatable. But she hasn't touched the storyline of "The Nutcracker." She believes that the way the music is paired with the dance is what makes the ballet so popular.
"The music is by Tchaikovsky, and it's an incredibly gorgeous score," she says. "And he's famous for being able to depict the scene by using music to create the scene."
Norton also points to the many children's roles within the ballet, something that is uncommon in high-level ballet. This allows many young dancers who take classes at Norton's ballet school to perform in a large production.
At 5, I could have joined the ranks of child ballet stars who began their careers under the watchful eye of Clara and her Nutcracker prince. See the beginning of the story for how that turned out.
"The Nutcracker" is performed all over the country, from intimate venues in small towns to the biggest of stages in New York and San Francisco. For many of these companies, the "Nutcracker" performances bring in a large chunk of the yearly revenue.
"Because people will come to 'The Nutcracker' regardless of what company is performing it, it has a life of its own as a holiday event," says Norton. She says her company does not rely on the "Nutcracker" revenue as other programs do, noting that though there may not be pressure to include the ballet in regular programming, the classic is an automatic audience draw wherever it is being performed.
This year will be Ballet Ariel's ninth year performing "The Nutcracker." The company is moving to a larger venue to ensure that the dancers don't run into one another in the wings of the stage as they were in their previous space. It's a big move, Norton says, and this year's performance of the holiday favorite could impact the company's overall budget. Regardless of the ticket sales, though, Norton knows that people will make it a priority to see "The Nutcracker," wherever they are.
"People are looking for holiday magic, and 'The Nutcracker' is a holiday story that people really enjoy."