Paul: “The Nutcracker” and the family circle

[When it rains, it pours: After a slow month here at Foot in Mouth, my contributors have both sent me posts. So, after reading this one, keep reading!
You know how I’ve been harping on the need for context in criticism–that without it we confine dance to specialists and fanatics? Well, here–this present from my friend and colleague Paul Parish, of Berkeley, about “The Nutcracker’s” place in the holidays.]

I seem to be in a phase of trying to deal with tradition rather than chuck it — it makes me sound like a conservative….. but there’s no harm in that, I don’t think
I’ve been mulling over the strange triumph of “The Nutcracker” in the United States, and it’s made me think about the idea of being home for Christmas. Big deal in “Little Women,” big deal still today.
Main thing is, Christmas has been a meeting ground for Jew and Christian; Easter had no common ground (and look how it’s faded to nothing — “ski week”), but Christmas had possibilities, many of them. The cynical will advocate the commercial side, and of course it’s true that gifts have to be bought and Jewish interests will prosper by going along. But, on the other hand, Christmas harmonizes with some of the deepest values of Jewish culture, especially the importance of the family circle.
Ever since the Babylonian captivity, the importance of family rituals, domestic traditions, which sacramentalizes (it looks like, from a sympathetic Christian point of view) the cooking and serving of dinner, the cleansing of the utensils, the lighting of the candles — everything that CAN be thought about has been thought about — has been a hallmark of a culture where only those within the household could be trusted, and the young had to be protected from even the idea of oppressive outsiders.
Similarly, in the Europe of ETA Hoffman’s era, when the old monarchies had been returned to their thrones and the Prussian and Austrian secret police made life dangerous for liberals, home culture suddenly became extremely important — and artists like Schubert, whose sympathies were as large as Beethoven’s but whose circumstances were suddenly much more constricted, began composing for domestic consumption rather than the vast public. “Seid umschlungen, Millionen” might be inscribed on the piano, but the music of people of large sympathies was nevertheless written for small groups within the safe confines of home. And stories grew up like “The Nutcracker” and “A Christmas Carol” about the Familienkreis.
I’ve had the experience, in the mid-90s, when I taught in Poland at the Silesian Dance Festival, of being invited into homes where the tradition of staying up all night and talking to the only people you could trust was still alive: among people who’d been jailed under the Communists for no more than playing banjo in a bluegrass band. I think the quality of such hospitality makes one understand how Biedermeyer culture worked, and how deeply it resonates with the culture I grew up in in Mississippi, where my father was in favor of civil rights and his closest friends were black, but they weren’t welcome in our house because my mother did not feel that way, so Daddy went out a lot and didn’t talk about it much, but I grew up feeling there was a lot of iceberg under the surface…. and also how it would harmonize with the Jewish culture of old, where only family and very close friends could be trusted, but how powerfully they were cherished.
“The Nutcracker” is about a very tight family circle, with no obvious source of danger but with nevertheless many intrusions of unaccountable terrors — clocks “warning,” sudden transmogrifications — most of them orbiting around the dangerous but necessary infusion of energy from outside, as personified by Drosselmeyer, who’s only a godfather, not consanguineous. And furthermore he’s a man of ideas, a white-wigged quasi-philosophe who smacks of the 18th century, a rationalist who’s paradoxically fascinated by the genius within the machine, and in Balanchine’s production, which is the only great one, the extended family has room for an artist who can introduce a liberal disturbance without fundamentally disrupting the traditions of the family.
Both Jews and Christians can accept this — indeed, both can espouse this. The family circle may be the only safe place, but it must not be a prison; indeed, if happy days are to come again, it must be the place where enlightenment is kept alive and fomented, from which it can go forth into the world and realize the Utopia that the liberals had dreamed of in the days of the great revolutions. This is how the middle class comes to power and comes to deserve the burden of decision-making that had formerly belonged to the prince; we must become princely, through enlightenment.
or something like that…….
Wonder what you’ll think.
Apollinaire responds: I think this is brilliant and fascinating, Paul, and that I’m lucky to have it. Drosselmeyer as an Enlightenment witch–that’s brilliant, him fiddling with the clock, the central figure of Deism, and widening the family circle so it includes principles once reserved for the prince. Now that the middle class is shrinking–here in America, anyway– we may end up with the old, tribal kind of circle again….eek.
Also: It is too bad your mama didn’t let your daddy make a princely thing of your home by welcoming his black friends in, though don’t you think the comparison mainly works the other way, with the black families most confined to too tiny a sphere? Or maybe there are spheres within spheres–the liberal whites not nearly as confined as blacks, whatever the blacks’ beliefs, though more confined than their reactionary peers, and the liberal 19th century Germans not as confined as their Jewish contemporaries, whatever the Jews’ beliefs. That’s the real danger, as you said: so much iceberg below the surface.
On another note: When, in the last year of his life, Balanchine discussed “The Nutcracker” with fellow Petersburger Solomon Volkov, he confirmed that the ballet was not incidentally about Christmas, but essentially. And for him, as for people across the millenia you succinctly lay out, it was an inside-outside affair. Christmas was as much about the eerie, mystic silence that surrounds the family circle–Balanchine enjoyed a family only briefly–as the circle itself:

“The Nutcracker” is a ballet about Christmas. We used to have a fantastic Christmas in Petersburg–all dark and somehow strange. It wasn’t the way it is now, with everyone shouting, running around panting as if it’s a fire instead of Christmas. Back in Petersburg there was a stillness, a waiting: Who’s being born? Christ is born! On Christmas night, we had only the family at home: mother, auntie, and the children.

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