During the Christmas period, there is not much that makes Budapest particularly ‘Christmassy’ whatsoever. There is not a lot of decoration and the few things that are organized are so German influenced that even the advertisements in the city for it state ‘Frohe Weihnachten.’ What is noticeable are the many nutcrackers. You don’t have to look far to see them show up in shop windows and posters. With the many opera houses and operetta in Budapest, it is thus unsurprising that ‘the Nutcracker is a ballet that is prevalent here. The piece originates from the minds of composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and choreographer’s Marius Petipa and Led Ivanov and has gained popularity all over the world. Let’s see what makes the piece so magical and important to Budapest’s street scene in the Budapest Operetta Theatre.
Welcomed by the more than friendly staff of the theater the entourage is perfect, not because it is ‘outstandingly tasteful’ but because the yellow faded photos of performers of the 20th century add a lot of atmosphere to a Theater like this. The operetta is modest but beautifully built and the wear of the stage curtain is not bothersome at all but rather adds a comfiness to the mid-sized theater. From the balcony, I have a clear view of the orchestra situated in front of the stage but not visible to the public that is not seated higher up. The orchestra makes ready to play one of Tchaikovsky’s signature pieces as the rest of the auditorium fills with a crowd that varies widely in age. It is remarkable how many children are present, considering it is a 3.5-hour performance. The theater is also filled to the last seat, something that would not be that extraordinary weren’t it for the fact that by the time of writing, the Omicron variant was cause for a lot of global concern.
But was it good?
Even though I very much appreciate your trust in the opinion of this 21 year old Journalist I must admit that this was the first ballet I ever attended. Thus my opinion is based on this experience and a lot of desk research alone. Therefore I consulted former chief dance critic of ‘The New York Times’ Alastair Macauly to interpret my experiences. Not really knowing what to expect the performance was intriguing but not a lot of former experience was needed to realize that the surprising introduction of spider man was not written into the original iteration of the ballet. “Some of the most experimental things on paper actually turn out to be fun, although for sure not all of them. A perfect representation with that is frankly impossible” Macaulay points out. “We simply do not know the exact choreography of some of the dances from the original” Keeping the article ‘10 Ways to Tell if Your ‘Nutcracker’ Is Traditional’ as my guideline, I noticed a lot of elements in the Operetta’s Nutcracker that check the boxes of the critics. They for example have talented child ballet dancer’s who really were able to communicate the nervousness, anticipation and joy of Christmas eve a child can experience. They were good dancers and acted impressively well in their facial expressions. Their stage presence already makes me doubt if the same can be achieved in a version without child dancers which is the case in some versions.
Unfortunately the Pantomime dame was not present in this iteration of ‘the Nutcracker’. This character should bring a bit of edginess to the piece to contrast the sweetness of the part before it ‘the dance of the Mirlitons’ . There is a distinct difference in the American versions and European versions of the Ballet in that this character is left out in most European versions. Surprising to me at first because generally in many forms of performance and film Europeans be less prudish than the Americans -because I doubt keeping your bra on during sex is something American woman actually do- Macaulay things it has to do with the expectation and integration in culture of the piece. “In Europe going to ‘ the Nutcracker’ seems a bit deinty and when Europeans come to see the ballet they expect it to be Refined. And while a lot of the Ballet is refined and pretty, in my opinion that is only amplified by the contrast with the character of the Pantomime dame. The vulgarity in the music makes the beauty of the other parts even stronger” Maybe though it should not be expected of a Hungarian small Opera house to make the step of putting a character in the piece that is intended to be performed by a a man ‘drag’ as a woman. In a country where the national government implemented an ‘anti LGBTQ propaganda law’ on 7 July 2021 such a step would not only be very unlikely, but also straight up illegal.
This hesitant stance of Europeans and Russians towards the piece also makes those pieces generally underwhelming compared to the American versions according to Macaulay “The ‘grandeur’,impudence and straight up fun of the piece make it particularly well suited for American performances.
With the conclusion that ‘The Nutcracker’ is a Russian ballet supposedly best performed by the Americans I continue my journey as a junior dance critic, and with an ever evolving performance like “the Nutcracker there is plenty to write about.