12/09/2011 09:04 EST | Updated 02/08/2012 05:12 EST

The Enduring Appeal of The Nutcracker

Bruce Zinger

It's the dream -- if not a rite of passage -- of every young female ballet student to dance the role of Clara in The Nutcracker. It's often their first involvement in a big, full-length work, with elaborate sets and costumes and a live orchestral score, or their first experience of performing with older, professional dancers and the incomparable thrill of taking to the stage before a large audience. Alas, I never had the chance. I was deemed too tall to play a child of Clara's age and never cast in the role.

When I was older and joined The National Ballet of Canada, I naturally had my fill of The Nutcracker every year, especially in the role of Sugar Plum Fairy. The ballet is still a mainstay of any classical ballet company, as much, it has to be admitted, for the box office success it generates as for the seasonal good cheer it provides. The upside of an annual performance like The Nutcracker is performing with and for children, whose totally ingenuous excitement at taking part in such a spectacle buoys everyone's spirits. The downside of an annual performance like The Nutcracker is that it is, well, an annual performance. And a small book could be filled with the onstage and backstage antics that dancers indulge in just to inject a little improvisatory surprise to break up the familiarity of the work.

Yet The Nutcracker continues to enthrall, to attract audiences and to mean something special to people. And I think the reason for this goes beyond its appeal as a timeless Christmas ritual, a close-to-perfect entertainment for children (yes, of all ages). Beyond the glitter and charming old-fashioned fantasy of its theatricality, it really is about something.

When James Kudelka created our current version of the ballet in 1995, he certainly didn't stint on spectacle (or on brilliant choreography) and his resetting of the story to Imperial Russia and the natural world of a farm, with warm and gorgeous sets by Santo Loquasto, is more than a feast for the eyes. But James also introduced into his re-working of the story some new and affecting themes. By centering the story on the brother-sister relationship of Misha and Marie (no Clara in this version) and how they evolve from a pair of squabbling kids to more mature adolescents by teaming up to defeat the Mouse Tzar, he emphasizes the importance of working together and overcoming petty disagreements to reach a higher goal. Similarly, by including characters from all levels of society, such as Peter the Stable Boy, who is transmogrified into the heroic Nutcracker himself, he democratizes and makes more inclusive what had often been a saccharine vision of Mitteleuropean bourgeois society.

Neither of these themes are imposed on the ballet, or turn it into something didactic -- they grow organically from James's storytelling skill and take their proper part in the gentle sweetness of its comedy and child-like reverie, as they should. But what they remind us of is that there is more to this evergreen, endlessly entertaining Christmas confection known as The Nutcracker than simply meets the eye. It's ample food for the senses, but in its own surprising way it's food for thought, too.