Is Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker an anti-feminist ballet?

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Most of us are familiar with the story. But here’s a quick break down for those of you that aren’t.

Young Clara’s family host a grand Christmas party in which she becomes entranced by her mysterious godfather Drosselmeyer’s gift, a beautiful, wooden Nutcracker doll. Later that night, Clara is surprised to see the Nutcracker doll leading the soldiers into battle and battle-ing it out with a seven-headed Mouse King. In perhaps what might be interpreted as a fleeting feminist touch, Clara, having agency, leaps to the Nutcracker’s defence, clouting the Mouse King on the head with her shoe.

But suddenly, Clara finds herself under the influence of the Nutcracker – turned – handsome young-man that calls himself Hans Peter. Whisked away by her newfound lover to the Kingdom of Sweets, she perches at the side of the stage for what seems like the majority of the production, taking in every pretty spectacles that unfolds.

Other than her clear mesmerization with her man, and obvious awe at her surroundings, there seems to be little dimension to Clara’s character.

Though, if the principle character’s role did have more dimension, more layers, perhaps this would detract from the production’s light-hearted, festive spirit? Whatever Ivan Vsevolozhsky, Marius Petipa and E. T. A Hoffman were thinking, surely it’s not just me that thinks that the ending is a bit of a flop? As the night wears on, Clara drifts back to bed and, clichΓ©, wakes up on Christmas morning, wondering if it was all a dream…

If it’s not bad enough that the principal dancer’s character has not been sculpted with much intricacy, in Act Two, the curtain is raised up on a small section of the stage. In the particular production I saw, standing face-to-face were four little girls and four little boys, with the Sugar Plum Fairy in the centre. While the girls, around six to eight years old, creep across the stage in painfully restricted steps on pointe, the boys take leaps and bounds that juxtapose the girls’ limited movements. The symbolism is hardly subtle, and could be an upsetting sight for anyone that renders themselves a feminist.

A somewhat unwelcome, dated, infused idealism, it forms an unpleasant introduction to the rest of the ballet. Particularly to the “Arabian” dancers.

There’s so many issues with Tchaikovsky. His composition took place at a time when othering, when exoticisation, didn’t cause anyone to bat an eyelid. But with so many people in the 21st century currently “woke” to the reality of racism that undercuts all of this, you would think that choreographer’s would demonstrate awareness towards the cultural sensitivity of the second act. But nope, it’s quite a shame that the Vienna Festival Ballet’s Artistic Director, Peter Malleck, hasn’t quite tapped into this. Arab women have both their cultures and sexuality’s delineated on so many levels.

These “Arabian” women wear veils in their hair, which do little to cover their faces, and appear scantily-clad in their figure-hugging tank tunics and loose trousers. The audience’s attention is repeatedly drawn to the women’s bare-stomach, when an equally as bare-chested man carries her slowly across the stage above his head, as she slides silk cloths across her body. Degrading, in it’s sexualization of everything “Eastern”, no?

There’s blatant problems with the production as it stands, and so many areas wherein positive adaptation could take place. Yet there are still so many things that redeem it. Clara’s courageous loyalty in the beginning, her passionate and adoring energy throughout. The intentional surreality of it all. Christmas just wouldn’t be the same without it.

Nevertheless, it’s about time producers dusted off the stage instructions and switched things up.

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