All photos/art by Sadie Dayton
More times than I can count we made the yearly pilgrimage.
Driving dark, icy roads from a small town in southern New Hampshire, we slid into the brilliance of Boston, threading through narrow streets to our destination: the warmth and light of the Boston Opera House, glowing like a beacon of Art and Culture. Inside awaited a spectacle of soaring Christmas trees, battling mice, fragile snowflakes, and an impossible romance between a young girl and a Nutcracker.
I like to think I was in the audience the first year that Boston Ballet performed The Nutcracker, back in December 1965 at the Back Bay Theater, with Maria Tallchief as the Sugarplum Fairy. Surrounded by hundreds of other children, sometimes breathing, sometimes not. It’s very possible. I certainly saw at least one of the performances conducted by the legendary Arthur Fiedler years later, possibly when Tchaikovsky’s classic was relocated to The Music Hall, later rechristened The Wang Center, where it played for more than 30 years.
Who were the dancers? Which years did I slip into Boston, first with parents, later with a high school dance class? I have no idea — memory a blur of colors, tutus, spins, and spectacle — the kind of spectacle that fills children’s eyes as vividly today as it did back then, and stays stored permanently in memory, no matter the decade. The images that breathe on these pages are more than proof of that.
Today, 43 years after its début, and settled once again at the Opera House, Boston Ballet’s month-long production of The Nutcracker is the most widely attended ballet in the world. (Take that, Giselle.) Last year, more than 71,000 adults and kids flocked to see this performance that for many defines the essence of the holiday season. This winter, at least 275 young dancers will share the roles of mice, reindeer, lambs, polichinelles, and toy soldiers, in alternating casts for 35 performances. Who can count how many memories are made?
In my memory, the Christmas tree, fully grown, was the biggest thing I could ever imagine on a stage. Clara was the most beautiful girl, in her flowing nightgown; the Nutcracker, once he’d cracked out of his shell, the handsomest man. The Sugarplum Fairy was some kind of dreamy interloper, and the Russian and Arabian dancers were the first intimations of anything more exotic than Indian madras. And even as a child, I thought the tiny dancers emerging from Mother Ginger’s skirts (Grandmère Ballabile’s, in the current Boston production) were adorable.
Today, as always, The Nutcracker isn’t about world-weary critics or pitch-perfect dance. It’s about mystery and memory in motion, captured and held forever, as round and perfect as a snow globe. Every year, new eyes see it for the first time, savoring the fragile images. On the long, late-night drive back from Boston, sleeping in the car, I’d dream like Clara, a world in motion around me, then wake at the familiar sound of home, clutching memories that I’ll have forever.
Click here for behind-the-scenes photos of the Boston Ballet Nutcracker dancers.
Find out more information on The Nutcracker at the Boston Opera House. 617-695-6955; bostonballet.org