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Dancing around a Yule tradition

Nutcracker Nation: How an Old World Ballet Became a Christmas Tradition in the New World
By Jennifer Fisher
Yale University, 230 pp., illustrated, $27


It's an old story: Ambitious immigrant arrives to conquer the New World through ingenuity, invention, and a right-place, right-time scenario.

In this case the immigrant is a Russian ballet, ''The Nutcracker." It doesn't have dual citizenship. In its country of origin, it was considered too unconventional to be a hit at its 1892 premiere. All those children onstage made for mayhem, some critics complained, and the leading ballerina, the Sugar Plum Fairy, danced only at the end.

By its centennial, though, ''Nutcracker" had become the financial lifeblood of nearly every ballet company in North America. How this happened is the subject of ''Nutcracker Nation," by Jennifer Fisher, a California critic and dance historian.

It's a book that needed to be written -- but not in the form Fisher offers. She flits around more than the Dew Drop Fairy, touching down on topics from the ballet's possible racist and sexist aspects to versions that include hula and bharata natyam, nods to multiculturalism.

The book is supposedly built around two productions of the ballet: that of the National Ballet of Canada, and the one danced by an amateur group, the Loudoun Ballet in Leesburg, Va. It would have been an interesting comparison had Fisher stuck with it. But the two troupes pop up only occasionally, not enough to make the reader care about them.

Even when Fisher talks about the community spirit behind the all-volunteer Leesburg group -- the local doctor who staffed the flower table in the lobby, the retired CIA agent who coped so well with restless little boys -- she does so in a dry, documentary tone. (The book came out of her doctorate dissertation, as the heavy footnoting and bibliography attest.)

She abandons Loudoun to offer fun facts about ''Nutcracker": Chelsea Clinton's participation in the Washington Ballet's production, for instance, which the author ties to the selection of ''Nutcracker" as the 1994 White House Christmas decorating theme. Continuing the immigrant metaphor with which she began the book, Fisher contends that the White House appearance meant that ''Nutcracker" had finally earned full citizenship.

Fred Flintsone, Fred Astaire, Bart Simpson, and Diana, Princess of Wales, turn up in Fisher's ramblings. She's making a list, not an argument. The digressions aren't even ''Nutcracker"-specific. They deal with generalized aspects of ballet history, especially the history of its acceptance in an America suspicious of an ''elitist" art that appeals to ''sissies."

The first American ''Nutcracker" was staged by the San Francisco Ballet in 1944. But it was when Balanchine introduced it into the New York City Ballet repertory a decade later that ''Nutcracker" started to spread like Christmas kudzu.

There are any number of ways to approach a book on ''Nutcracker": a thorough analysis of three totally different productions, say; or the ballet as seen through the eyes of one of the many Claras who rose through the ranks to dance the Sugar Plum Fairy. Fisher's book lacks this kind of focus. Moreover, the photographs in the book are a spare, poorly reproduced selection, all in black and white. ''Nutcracker" performances are among the ballet world's most lavish extravaganzas, and good images of strikingly different productions -- the cross-dressing to conventional -- would do a lot to tell Fisher's story.

This is the season not only of ''Nutcracker" but also of the coffee table book. The two seem destined for partnership -- not this year, but there's always another Christmas.

Christine Temin is a member of the Globe staff.

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