The Nutcracker’s reluctant biggest fan

Why I begrudgingly watched the holiday-themed ballet 30 times

Josh and his sister after a ballet performance.

Every holiday season, thousands of eager Canadians swarm downtown Toronto to witness the unique Christmastime magic that is The National Ballet of Canada’s production of The Nutcracker. Also every holiday season, I begrudgingly drag myself to the Four Seasons Theatre’s orchestra section and wait for The National Ballet of Canada’s production of The Nutcracker to end.

At some point in their lives, all three of my sisters moonlighted as very talented ballerinas, each of them performing in The Nutcracker numerous times over the past 15 years. Along with many bouquets of flowers and arrays of flashy animal costumes, their performances came with two free tickets.

I remember seeing the show for the first time at around five years old. 

As a child, I would’ve preferred to be playing with Thomas the Tank Engine toys, but I didn’t have anything against ballet. I eagerly anticipated watching my sister’s performance as a mouse. She wore a head-to-toe costume, which meant I could only speculate which of the seven onstage mice she was. But the buzz surrounding her ballet debut carried me through the show, and I happily congratulated her on a job well done afterwards. After that first show, I had no strong positive or negative feelings towards The Nutcracker

Then I saw the show roughly 29 times more.

I watched my sisters go through the ballet’s natural role progression over many years: mouse to lamb, lamb to rat, rat to dog, and so on. I always felt a beaming sense of pride whenever they were onstage but, as soon as they retreated to the wings, I used everything in my power to will the curtains shut.

As I saw the show more, my problems with its story and dancing became unavoidable. The music put me to sleep, I found the choreography repetitive, and even at a young age I could recognize the ballet’s plot holes. Why were there dancing unicorns in a frozen Russian forest? How did the two lead children get to meet the Sugar Plum Fairy, the most valued person in the kingdom, without so much as making an appointment? And what on earth is so interesting about a wooden toy that cracks nuts?

By the time I was 13, I outright dreaded The Nutcracker. I felt bad that my ticket was taking the spot of a willing audience member, which only added to my poor disposition. Once my third sister joined the show as I neared 18, I felt as though I’d seen the same performance an infinite amount of times. I apparently wasn’t alone in this feeling, as I asked my mom to guess how many times I’d seen the show, and she earnestly responded, “60.”

When I came home for the holidays this past winter, I expected to fall into what’d become my usual routine: attend The Nutcracker, cheer for my sister, zone out for everything else. My days at home passed and I noticed no mention of the show, so I finally decided to ask what was going on. My mom informed me that my sister was in an “in-between year,” where she’d take the year off as she waited to become tall enough for her next role.

The last emotion I expected to feel from this news was sadness. But I couldn’t help but mourn the absence of this yearly tradition, and I yearned to put a finger on the reason why I missed it so much. 

I wasn’t a secret ballet aficionado, and the emotional absence didn’t feel like nostalgia. While I didn’t miss The Nutcracker itself, I did miss my yearly ritual of openly supporting my sisters. 

The thing that kept me coming back to the show year after year was the after-show moments where my family and I would pick up my sisters from backstage. We’d shower them with praise and flowers, and it was heartwarming to see how proud they were of themselves. The fact I didn’t enjoy the show outside of their performances almost added to my fulfillment, since I’d made some sort of sacrifice—doing something I didn’t enjoy—to support my sisters.

Once I’d figured this out, my whole attitude towards The Nutcracker seemed silly. Yes, I’d obviously overreacted by loathing it, but I’d also gotten into  channelling all the praise I had for my sisters into feedback for their ballet performances.

I didn’t need to wait for my sisters to hop off stage to tell them they were doing a great job—I could do it whenever I wanted.

I didn’t need to wait for my sisters to hop off stage to tell them they were doing a great job—I could do it whenever I wanted.

For the rest of my time at home this winter, I made sure to tell my sisters each and every time they impressed me. I commended one for her wildly impressive gender studies essay and told the other how much her math skills had grown since I’d last helped her with her homework.

I’m embarrassed I hadn’t adopted this strategy earlier, and I wish I’d avoided falling into a pattern of saving my praise for them for select December nights. I don’t regret my Nutcracker experiences, so long as my sisters are able to look back and see how proud I am of them, and how proud I’ve always been.

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