The Nutcracker: The enduring appeal of this Christmas classic

The Nutcracker is a family favourite and as Northern Ballet returns to this classic festive show, Chris Bond looks at its enduring appeal to audiences both young and old.

Dancers Rachael Gillespie and Ashley Dixon. PIC: Simon Hulme
Dancers Rachael Gillespie and Ashley Dixon. PIC: Simon Hulme

The Nutcracker holds a special place in Rachael Gillespie’s affections.

“It’s the first ballet I ever saw,” she says. “It wasn’t on stage, my mum recorded it on TV when I was about four years old.

“I loved doing ballet classes as a little girl and I remember watching it on telly. I think it was a version Birmingham Royal Ballet had done and I wore these tiny satin ballet shoes and tried to copy the same moves.

Dancers Rachael Gillespie and Ashley Dixon. PIC: Simon Hulme

“It was on one Christmas and I think I actually wore the tape out because I watched it so many times,” she says, laughing.

Rachael’s not alone. Set to Tchaikovsky’s unmistakable score, The Nutcracker has become a perennial favourite after ETA Hoffman’s tale was transformed into a ballet back in 1892.

Generations of wide-eyed children have been entranced by the magical story which has recently been given the Hollywood treatment in Disney’s live action film – The Nutcracker and the Four Realms – starring Keira Knightley and Helen Mirren.

The story, for those that don’t know it, follows a young girl called Clara who is given a wooden nutcracker as a present.

When the nutcracker comes to life as a handsome prince the two have to escape the Mouse King to reach the Land of Sweets, which is ruled by the Sugar Plum Fairy.

It has become an audience favourite and one that Northern Ballet has returned to for this year’s Christmas show.

For soloist Rachael it’s the second time she’s played Clara since she joined the company as a dancer 11 years ago. “It’s got that festive and family feel to it. If you’ve never seen a ballet before then this is a really good one to come to because everyone knows the story of The Nutcracker, and even if you don’t it doesn’t really matter.”

Rachael says there’s something special about this particular ballet. “It’s set in this magical world and from the beginning you’ve got all these gorgeous costumes and with the music it just transports you to another place – you can see that look of wonder on the kids’ faces when they watch it for the first time.”

We’re sitting in the cafe at Northern Ballet’s plush HQ in the centre of Leeds, where Rachael has just been put through her paces for the best part of an hour with dance partner, and real-life husband, Ashley Dixon, with whom she’s appearing in the ballet which returns to home soil when it begins a 13-day run at Leeds Grand this week.

She’s been rehearsing under the watchful eye of artistic director David Nixon. The Canadian is one of the most respected figures in the business and has been at the helm at Northern Ballet for approaching 20 years now.

Festive shows are where the big money is for a lot of theatre and dance companies and for many of them The Nutcracker has become an annual fixture on their calendar.

“It’s harder for them because there will be some dancers who after five years will be thinking ‘what can I do with this?’” he says.

“From my perspective I’m fortunate in that we might do it three or four years apart which means I have more opportunity to see people in different roles and I’m able to do something different each time.”

This year they have new costumes in the first act which allows Nixon to create something fresh, though he doesn’t pretend to be reinventing the wheel. “Nobody does an original Nutcracker,” he says. “They can tell you all they want that they do, but they don’t.

“I’m sure there might be some in Russia that are closer but it’s been one of those ballets that’s been totally stripped back and redone - some people have even tried to impose a kind of psychological heaviness onto it,” he says.

“All of my steps are classical ballet steps but they’re not original. What can be original is how you present it. Do you have snowflakes, do you have a Clara and a Sugar Plum Fairy and what’s the party scene like?”

Northern Ballet has become known for its innovative new productions, but Nixon says returning to a classic ballet can be equally rewarding.

“We tend to do a lot of new work, so when the company does something like The Nutcracker it can be nice to come back to something that you know.”

However, it can be a tricky balancing act between doing something new and something that people also want to watch. Opera has been trying to attract new blood for years, so does ballet face a similar problem?

“I think ballet is in a very good place,” says Nixon. “I do think sometimes there’s a feeling that some ballets attract an older audience, but we’ve had 
an older audience since I was dancing 30 or 40 years ago, so they can’t be the same older people. I think as we grow older ballet becomes something we consider part of our cultural experience.”

He says that producing more contemporary ballets such as Casanova or The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas can be an effective way of getting younger audiences to view ballet differently.

“If the story interests them then they will come, so I think dance is strong in this country at the moment. If people weren’t coming we’d start seeing empty theatres and we’re not seeing that.”

The Nutcracker remains one of a handful of ballets that is almost guaranteed to put bums on seats, so what is its enduring appeal? Nixon believes the music is the starting point.

“Tchaikovsky’s music is engaging and magical, so much so that it’s not just played at the ballet it’s always played at Christmas time. And in many respects The Nutcracker is not thought of as a ballet it’s seen as more of a Christmas show. It finishes on a sweet note and at this time of year it’s what people are looking for.”

He doesn’t believe that its appeal has waned over time. “It’s about a child’s dreams. Do children not dream anymore? They do and they have aspirations and a sense of wonder and that’s what The Nutcracker is, and for adults it’s remembering how they felt about things when they were young,” he says.

“It’s something I have a great fondness for because it takes me back to my childhood. I don’t want to do a modern-day Christmas production, it’s never entered my mind.

“For a lot of people Christmas is about memories. Mothers remember going to The Nutcracker when they were younger and then they take their children and grandchildren, so it’s sharing something that’s special to you with those that you love. We’re very lucky in the ballet world that we have it.”

The Nutcracker, Leeds Grand Theatre, from December 4 to 16. For tickets call 0844 848 2700 or go to