Michael Bierut | Essays

And May All Your Christmases Be Carefully Staged So As To Appear White

The Nutcracker
at The New York City Ballet, choreography by George Balanchine, scenic design by Rouben Ter-Arutunian. Photograph by Paul Kolnik.

A few years ago, I was invited to a fundraising dinner for the New York City Ballet. Sitting next to me was a young woman who was a ballerina. I hardly know anything about ballet, so I was a little ill-equipped to hold up my end of the conversation. Because it was the Christmas season, and because it was one of the few NYCB performances I've seen more than once, I reverted to the obvious: "Do you get tired of dancing in The Nutcracker?"

My new friend was very gracious and said of course not. Yet The Nutcracker is to City Ballet what "Stairway to Heaven" was to Led Zeppelin. They've done it a million times, but it's the thing that everyone comes to see. It can't be easy. Is there anything harder than faithfully creating magic, night after night after night?

The legendary choreographer George Balanchine first danced the role of the Prince in The Nutcracker in his native Russia at the age of 15. Over forty years later, after founding New York City Ballet, he created his own version of the dance to Tchaikovsky's familar music. With its debut in 1954, The Nutcracker was an immediate crowd pleaser, due in no small part to the beautiful sets and effects Balachine concocted with scenic designer Rouben Ter-Arutunian. Today NYCB performs it almost 50 times a year.

My favorite part occurs at the end of the first act, during the Waltz of the Snowflakes. As they begin their dance, snow begins to fall on the stage of the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center, first a few flakes, then more, then a virtual blizzard. The dancers create dizzying patterns on the stage as their feet cut through the mounting drifts. The effect is breathtaking and, yes, magical. I'd like to think that I've become sophisticated after years of design practice, but I must say this staged snowstorm effects me as if I were a nine-year-old.

And, like a nine-year-old, I asked my new friend the ballerina the obvious question: "What's the snow made out of?" She had heard this one before, I guess. She told me it was made of paper, little pieces of white confetti. About 50 pounds of confetti a night, as it turns out.

I asked if it were slippery and she looked at me as if I were, well, nine years old. "It's not real snow, you know," she said, rather slowly. "Like I said, it's paper."

So, I said, it wasn't hard to dance on. She shook her head. No, slippery wasn't the problem. "It's more that it gets...everywhere." She laughed. "It gets in your eyes. It gets in your nose. When you get home you have to comb it out of your hair. When you take a shower you have to scrape it off the drain. It can really drive you crazy. You never escape it."

She leaned in, as if she was about to make a secret confession. "Sometimes, even in April, or May, or even June, I'll be going through one of my sock drawers and I'll find one of those...little...pieces...of...paper. When that happens, I almost want to scream."

I've often complained how no one appreciates what designers do, how hard they work to achieve effects that the world takes for granted, if they even notice at all. Yet I realized then, and remember now — every time I see The Nutcracker — how happy I am to have someone else work the magic for me every once in a while. I still enjoy the snowstorm. But I wish I were nine years old again.

This essay was originally published on Christmas Eve, 2004.

Posted in: Arts + Culture

Comments [9]

Michael, this is a wonderful post for Christmas Day. Thank you for leaving us with such lyrical thoughts on this holiday.

To all of our readers, we wish you Happy Holidays.


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William Drenttel

The appeal of ballet to me is that it is generally magical; people defy gravity without the cheap tricks of wires and pulleys or CGI. Dancers make it look easy so that perfection can seem natural to the audience. I think there's a lesson for design there—one that doesn't require fake snow.

Nice piece, Michael. And merry and happy to all of you.
Gunnar Swanson

I enjoy the mention of stage design on this page. Nice piece.
Lucas Krech

Our family just came back from visiting relatives in Ohio for our "White Christmas" complete with 2 feet of snow, Dr. Zhivago icicles hanging off the roof and roaring fires. All that was missing was going out Christmas caroling in the "hood". There is nothing quite like the real stuff to make the occasion truly special.

This is wonderful. It reminded me of what happens to me every year as Burning Man approaches - suddenly there's glitter everywhere, and months later I find it in my bed, in my closet, peeking out from between the keys on my computer...
Eric Rodenbeck

Pre-digital effects, The Hollywood Film Industry used traditional Kellog's Corn Flakes as snow flakes. Quite messy & too hard to clean up! In additon, rat problems occured on many sound stages as a result!
Ron Bierut

When I worked as a stagehand on TV shows it was shredded polyethylene film. You can make your own by tearing up plastic bags. No rat problems but still a mess.
Gunnar Swanson

"...no one appreciates what designers do, how hard they work to achieve effects that the world takes for granted, if they even notice at all."

Thanks for this comment about ballet (and fake snow). It prompts the thought that designers may, like dancers, strive to cover their tracks in a way that brings to mind Castiglione's sprezzatura. Here, from Singleton's translation :

...and (to pronounce a new word perhaps) to practice in all things a certain sprezzatura [nonchalance], so as to conceal all art and make whatever is done or said appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it. And I believe much grace comes of this: because everyone knows the difficulty of things that are rare and well done; wherefore facility in such things causes the greatest wonder; whereas, on the other hand, to labor and, as we say, drag forth by the hair of the head, shows an extreme want of grace, and causes everything, no matter how great it may be, to be held in little account.
Baldesar Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier (translated by Charles S. Singleton; Anchor, 1959)
(or Hoby translation (1651) at http://darkwing.uoregon.edu/~rbear/courtier/courtier.html (find "a certain Reckelessness">

My students have enjoyed that passage, and responding to it in writing and design exercises.
Even product and industrial design can embody that idea -- hiding the blood, sweat and tears behind a smooth surface.

Michael's post reminds me that graphic design is, in some sense and at least partly, a performance art. We perform, phrase, frame other people's content, like a pianist might. The conservatory may be a better educational model than the art atelier.
john mcvey

This is great. I am a designer and an avid dance fan. I have even been know to dance my self on occassion.

Right now I am in the process of writting a graduate thesis for Syracuse University to complete my Master's Degree in Advertising Design.

My research topic is to evaluate the contribution that dance can make to the communication of advertising and design. Things like the iPod campaign and motion capture (or in the case of The Polar Express, performance capture) technology jump to mind right away. I would love to hear what designers think about how and what dance communicates.
Jewel Hampton

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