I’m a fan of a good story in whatever medium it appears, book, movie, song, video game, you name it, or in this instance ballet. Popular this time of year, of course is The Nutcracker. I’ve seen a few productions over the years and while I will concede that each performance inherently has its own variances and nuances, in each version I’ve seen, I find the story of The Nutcracker falls a little short.
Lets take a step back and ask the question, what makes a story interesting? To me the simplest answer is conflict. Conflict between characters or between a character and other forces is what almost every story uses to get us listeners, viewers, or observer to invest our time to find out what happens. What makes a story good? If we observers feel our time was well spent investing in a story, then to us personally, the story is good. Thus, to me, a good story must have compelling conflict with the exploration of the conflict, be it leading to a resolution or not, guiding us through the story’s entirety.
In general terms, every element of a work should serve the story. Big budget special effects in movies, soliloquies in plays, songs in musicals, or flashback chapters in a novel, all of these can be exceptional devices so long as they serve the story, if not, they and the story fail. In a ballet, dancing is of course the primary element and dancing is used to tell the story. Therefore, by my standards, all dancing in a ballet should serve the story.
Now returning to The Nutcracker, the ballet has a definite story, the conflict of which lies between the mice, led by the Mouse-King and the soldiers who fight them, led by the Nutcracker. This conflict might be as good as any for a story, but my issue is that this conflict resolves essentially half way through.
A story can have many conflicts but to me no further conflict arises resulting in the entire second half of the piece being without conflict and virtual without story. The dancing no longer serves the story but instead becomes a simple collage of vignettes, each with no apparent story or conflict of their own, and no matter how well performed, and how ornately decorated, still fall short of continuing to be compelling.
That said, I believe altering the story to maintain conflict, and thereby interest for the entirety could be relatively simple. Just bring back the Mouse-King for one more battle right before the conclusion. Imagine, the story as is, but when the Mouse-King was defeated he instead escapes and threatens to return. Through each vignette of various food or drink themed dances, the threat of the Mouse-King’s return is ever-present…conflict.
After the crowning of Clara (or whatever the girls name is in a particular version) and the Prince (Nutcracker) as rulers of the Land of Sweets, the Mouse-King does returns and threatens everyone. The Nutcracker must once again take up arms and then and only then defeat the Mouse-King for good. With this resolution to the conflict, now only a short amount of story is spent celebrating the defeat and awaking from the dream (if that is the interpretation of your given version.) So again I ask, is it too late to rewrite The Nutcracker?
* It is difficult to account for all interpretation of this piece, across so many years and around the world. Given the multitude of unique versions, it is possible that a similar variation to what I propose has been tried. If so, and if available to watch or at least read a review of, please point me in its direction. I would surely enjoy it.