The Nutcracker

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Hundreds of cinemas across America have been switching over from their usual fare of romantic comedies and blockbuster action flicks to make way for a more unusual show: The Nutcracker ballet. Nearly a thousand cinemas, including at least one in all 50 American states, is expected to broadcast a high-definition live showing of New York City Ballet’s production of the classic Christmas ballet, which is set to Tchaikovsky’s famous score.

 

And whether traditional,  jazzed up or semi-nude, The Nutcracker is now firmly entrenched in the American seasonal landscape; much in the same way pantomime is to the British celebration of Christmas. There are 12 separate stage versions in Los Angeles alone, plus five in New York and seven in Chicago – and the number of stage production across America could also hit the thousand mark once all the small-town and amateur shows are included.

 

But The Nutcracker comes far from being uniform across the country. There is several jazz versions, and at least four have taken their inspiration from 1950s Harlem. A remarkable 33 productions feature live horses (what was it someone said about working on stage with children and live animals?). Even here in Seattle, apart from the traditional offering, there is the all-productions sold-out Land of Sweets, a burlesques version featuring semi-nude dancers and advertising itself as a “bawdy makeover” of the original – all a far cry from the ballet’s first performance in Imperial Russia in 1892, when it got its premier in St. Petersburg.

 

 The Nutcracker has come to dominate America’s Christmas experience. For this reason, shopping malls and high street shops are usually surrounded by giant toy soldier figures from the ballet, such as this one standing guard to one of the floors at Seattle’s downtown Pacific Mall.

 

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As I recently walked past Nordstrom’s, Seattle landmark department store, they had their perennial festive frontage of one of the main window displays taken over with the arrival of Santa Claus and kids waiting to be photographed alongside the Big Man. It’s a time-honoured Seattle tradition: Grandparents and parents did this at Nordstrom’s when they were kids, and now they take their own kids – though times have changed, and along with getting the traditional photo, one of the parents can usually be seen taking their own instant family Santa selfie with the iPhone.

 

All of which led me to wonder what goes into someone wanting to be a Santa in the first place. Turns out I didn’t have much research to do, as I found a wonderful 2011 documentary streaming on Netflix called Becoming Santa, about a regular guy who decides he’s going to take on the role of Santa Claus for a season. Don’t be mistaken in thinking that this is some sort of dire Tim Allen festive frolic. But that’s almost what it is, minus the dire part and Tim Allen.

 

Instead, this festive crowd-pleaser is all about Jack Sanderson, a former producer’s assistant, writer and voice actor for Disney’s Wizards of Waverly Place, who takes on the part of the Christmas mascot and finds out just exactly what it takes to represent him to the kids (sorry, I mean children – you need to watch the doc for this one). Sanderson gets his hair and beard dyed pure white and groomed much in the style of the Coca-Cola Santa; he then invests $600 on a made-to-measure Santa suit; and then enrols in Santa School. When he graduates, he’s given his certificate (which, if it were British, you could say he had three Ho! Levels – sorry, I couldn’t resist that pun) and then embarks on playing Santa for special events and charities.

 

But along the way, this is where the documentary comes into its own, as it sprinkles about the history of and facts on the said Big Man. Think you know all there is to know about the origins, controversies and cultural depictions of what was a very black Turkish monk called Saint Nicholas, aka Sinterklaas, aka Father Christmas? Believe me, there is much you’re unfamiliar with, particularly the bounty of info provided by a jolly old Civil War historian Santa, the racially controversial colonial holdover of the “blacking up” (think golliwogs and a certain brand of British marmalade here) of Black Pete in the Netherlands, and details of the first department store Santa.

 

Sanderson is hilarious, intelligent, honest and just sardonic enough to pull this off by being a perfect observer and participant in the whole affair without veering towards the Grinch/Scrooge territory. And it turned out not just to be a documentary one-off Santa experience for Sanderson – a year after the film was released, he ended up getting the best Santa gig in the world. No, not at the legendary Miracle On 34th Street Macy’s in New York. He became Santa for the Tiffany store in Hong Kong, earning himself $16,000 for working from Dec 1-24.

 

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