If there’s mice and mirlitons and memories of our first ballet concert, it has to be Christmas

At Christmas, we yearn for home or at least the memory of home as it was when we were children.

And apart from carols, nothing evokes Christmas past like music, from Bing Crosby’s White Christmas,to Frank Sinatra’s Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, Last Christmas I Gave You My Heart, by Wham! and the most played Christmas song of the 21st century, Fairy Tale of New York.

Our favourite depends on our age but there’s one musical backdrop to Christmas that’s ageless and as appealing to children as it is to their grandparents.

Tchaikovsky’s score for Nutcracker with its march, gallop, polka and waltzes is the marker of December, especially in the United States, otherwise known as ‘Nutcracker Nation’.

This year both the Queensland Ballet and the Australian Ballet ended their 2014 seasons with Nutcracker, both staging much loved productions, Ben Stevenson’s in Brisbane and Sir Peter Wright’s in Sydney.

The Australian Ballet has four Nutcrackers in its repertoire, including two of my personal favourites, the productions of Graeme Murphy and Peter Wright.

Inside the company Murphy’s work is nicknamed Gumnut-cracker for its Australian narrative that tells the story of how ballet came to Australia from the Russian dancers who toured to Australia and settled here, and the birth of the Borovansky Ballet.

The first Nutcracker, created by Marius Petipa in collaboration with Tchaikovsky was staged in St Petersburg in 1892 and choreographed by Lev Ivanov following Petipa’s illness.

The trio could never have imagined how it flowered in the 20th century with at least 30 more Nutcrackers including one set partly in a hospital ward (Gary Harris, for the Royal New Zealand Ballet) and another whose young heroine, Clara, lives in the orphanage of a Dr Sugar (Matthew Bourne for Adventures in Motion Pictures).

Nutcracker is so pervasive it’s hard to remember that there are other Christmas ballets.

This year the Royal New Zealand Ballet staged A Christmas Carol, based on Charles Dickens’ story of Ebinizer (bah humbug!) Scrooge.

With sets reflecting Christmas in the Victorian age, the ballet was commissioned by Christopher Gable in 1992 when he was artistic director of the Northern Ballet Theatre in England.

Gable’s collaborators were choreographer, Massimo Moricone, designer Lez Brotherston and composer Carl Davis, whose score included traditional Christmas carols.

Maybe one day someone in Australia will be brave enough to replace Nutcracker in favour of A Christmas Carol, even if it’s just a one-off diversion from the traditional choice.

Long before Nutcracker established its place in the festive season in the United States and Australia, the Russian ballerina, Anna Pavlova, created a divertissement called Christmas, choreographed by Ivan Clustine, in 1916.

Her biographer, Keith Money, described how she danced the role of a carefree beauty arriving at a Christmas party with an escort and then flirted with four men who plied her with gifts.

Money thinks that her great admirer, Frederick Ashton, was inspired by Pavlova’s Christmas when he choreographed Marguerite and Armand in 1963.

Pavlova brought Christmas to Australia in her first tour in 1926 and in her second tour, in 1929, she brought signed photos of her dancing the divertissement as presents for those who supported her at the time, among them the Melbourne ballet teacher, Eunice Weston, and the artist and publisher, Sydney Ure Smith, whose magazine Home, featured Pavlova in photographic spreads.

The portrait was taken in Paris by the Viennese photographer, Dora Kalmus (or Kallmus), whose studio was called Atelier d’Ora.

The photo is part of the dance collection of the Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales.

For most little dancers Christmas will always bring back memories of their first end of year ballet concert when the teacher is frantic, the parents are exhausted but the children themselves are thrilled to be on stage as elves, mice, flowers, snowflakes, fairies or butterflies.

For my own first ballet concert my teacher, Lily Stevens, was brave enough to stage a version of Nutcracker.

I can still remember her coaching, coaxing and yelling at every student in rehearsals.

How I dreamed that I might be a flower, a snowflake or a candy cane. Instead I was a mouse!

But that was good enough in the end, still magic, and in the group photo of the mice with our pipe cleaner whiskers and wonky ears, only one of us is smiling – that was me.

An earlier version of this article first appeared on the website of Amy and Louise Dancewear, Australian licensee for Ainsliewear, the Canadian supplier of the leotards worn by the school of the National Ballet of Canada.

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