The Nutcracker Comes to America: How Three Ballet-Loving Brothers Created a Holiday Tradition, Chris Barton and Cathy Gendron, Millbrook Press, 2015
The Nutcracker Comes to America isn’t principally about fairies and the land of sweets, or a brother who deliberately breaks his sister’s beloved doll. It’s a picture book history with engaging and detailed text about three brothers from Utah who staged the first full-length Nutcracker ballet in the U.S. You won’t read about Clara (or Marie in some versions) bravely defeating the Mouse King by hitting him with her slipper. You will reverse some preconceptions about this ballet, which was not always popular or guaranteed to bring in audiences every December. Chris Barton is the author of many picture books, including one of my favorite informational books for young readers, The Day-Glo Brothers: The True Story of Bob and Joe Switzer’s Bright Ideas and Brand-New Colors. Having brought the invention of fluorescent paint to life, he has no trouble creating, along with artist Cathy Gendron, a compelling story out of the birth of Tchaikovsky’s classic.
Readers may not be aware that the original performance of the Russian composer’s work in 1892 was far from a hit, or that American audiences did not always throng to theaters every holiday season to see a production of the work based on stories by German Romantic author E.T.A. Hoffman. Barton grounds the book in the American melting pot success story of William, Harold, and Lew Christensen, three grandsons of a Danish immigrant to Utah. Their family had a dancing school and two of the brothers joined the vaudeville circuit, which Barton explains as a world where the “competed for applause with jugglers, clowns, magicians, and dancing elephants.” Through a series of acquaintances and opportunities, William choreographed some dances to Tchaikovsky’s score for a ballet company in Portland, Oregon. Later, after World War II during which Lew served in the military, the brothers consulted with Russian dancers and concocted an early version of the marvel that would take root in American culture in many different forms.
Gendron’s pictures accompany Barton’s words on their journey, from the Christensens’ love of show business to their commitment to collaborate in producing a professionally excellent ballet in San Francisco. She shows us the excitement of preparation “on as small a budget as possible, because small was all they had.” A ballerina places the hem of the tutu she is wearing under a sewing machine operated by an intent designer. Another artist carefully applies makeup to a cast member’s cheeks, while painters on ladders finish the backdrop. The last two-page spread shows programs for the successors to the brothers’ dream, from the Pacific Northwest Ballet Nutcracker, (that one has sets designed by Maurice Sendak) to “American Ballet Theater’s with Baryshnikov as star, to Harlem Nutcracker arranged by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn (also the subject of a children’s book).
If you don’t need a break from The Nutcracker and Nutcracker kid lit, but would like a complementary history of its origins, The Nutcracker Comes to America will not disappoint you!