Nov 22, 2015

The Nutcracker: Men in Tights

When I was a kid, our church forbade movies, theater, carnivals, circuses -- basically anything that had a plot.  And my working-class parents disapproved of anything "long hair."  So ballet and opera were completely alien.

Except at Christmastime, when we would go to see "The Nutcracker" at Centennial Hall on the Augustana College campus, or at Rock Island High School, or both.  One year the Youth Symphony participated, so I got to be in the orchestra pit for eight full performances.

The plot is heterosexist -- Elsa receives a nutcracker shaped like a toy soldier for Christmas.  He comes to life, fights an army of mice, and reveals that he is actually a prince.  They return to his kingdom, the Land of Sweets, where he makes Elsa his queen.

But who pays attention to the plot?  No matter what people tell you, they go to ballets for one reason, and one reason only: to celebrate male or female beauty.  Dances in form-fitting tights, swaying and twisting, making every curve and muscle visible.

No other art, not even bodybuilding, displays the male physique so openly and extensively.  You don't just get a glimpse or a hint -- everything is out there, through the entire performance.

No wonder every gay kid in town, even those who were otherwise obsessed with sports, couldn't wait for Christmas.

 The only ballet dancer I knew by name was Rudolf Nureyev (1938-1993), who danced in a tv version of The Nutcracker in 1968.  I also saw him on The Muppet Show in 1977, and in Romeo and Juliet in 1982 (which also has a heterosexist plot, but who cares?)

I didn't know at the time that he was gay in real life, and dated a number of celebrities, including Raymundo de Larrain and Tab Hunter (left), plus his long-time lover Erik Bruhn.  I responded to his passion, his obvious joy at being an object of desire, and his superlative physique.

He was even able to invest The Nutcracker with gay symbolism, transforming the Prince into an outcast, a wooden soldier who longs to be a "real boy."

I discovered Mikhail Baryshnikov (1948-) in a 1977 tv version of The Nutcracker, and later in Carmen (1980) and Don Quixote (1984).  He was more muscular than Nureyev, and an accomplished actor, but his aggressively heterosexual stance bothered me, as if he wanted to "redeem" ballet from its gay reputation.

Good luck.  Vaslav Nijinsky (1890-1950), the first ballet superstar, was gay, and caused a scandal with his erotic movements (the audience rioted at the premiere of The Rites of Spring).

So was Tchaikovsky, who scored The Nutcracker and Swan Lake.

See also: Erik Bruhn, Closeted Ballet Great.