Is this ballet for you?
Go if: you want to treat your kids, godchildren, nieces and nephews or even perhaps the kid in you.
Skip if: Bah humbug!
Sugar Plum Fairy: any ballerina who can do proper gargouillades
The Nutcracker is a major example of a balletic twist of fate. The very thing critics and audiences objected to at the time of its premiere 117 years ago – its appeal to children – is what turned it into such a bankable classic. From your local end of the year ballet school presentation, to the most lavish productions for the big companies and every kind of thing in-between (even Nutcracker on Ice), Christmas season has now become saturated with Nutcrackers everywhere.
Ivan Vsevolozhsky, the same Imperial Theatre Director who had brought together Tchaikovsky and Petipa for his ambitious project The Sleeping Beauty had imagined a new ballet to be based on the book L’Histoire d’un Casse Noisette by Alexandre Dumas père. This was a story he knew from his time in Paris as a diplomat and which Dumas himself had adapted from Ernst Theodor Amadeus (E.T.A.) Hoffmann‘s Nussknacker und Mausekönig (The Nutcracker and the Mouse King) from 1816.
Vsevolozhsky managed to secure Tchaikovsky and Petipa’s collaboration again but Tchaikovsky only agreed to write for The Nutcracker on the basis that he would also be able to work on his opera Iolanta. Because Petipa had fallen ill he ended up working mostly with the choreographer’s assistant Lev Ivanov. Although Tchaikovsky’s music was appreciated (but again thought too symphonic for a ballet) the production was criticized, mainly for the lack of logic relationship between its two acts. The Nutcracker received only 14 performances initially. Some critics thought there was not enough complexity in the story and “no subject whatever”. To critics and audiences alike, the Nutcracker was a luxurious piece but one that was “made for children”.
The Nutcracker in the West
Although it was not considered much of a hit in Russia, The Nutcracker kept being performed throughout the theatre season (at that time, it was not heavily associated with Christmas). In the West, however, it boomed. First seen in scattered pieces, with the Arabian dance transplanted into the Ballets Russes’s Sleeping Princess and with Anna Pavlova‘s take on The Waltz of the Snowflakes, London audiences soon got the first full version.
Most versions have some links back to the original, but by the time they were staged, much of the choreography had been lost and/or changed. This meant that Ivanov’s original Waltz of the Snowflakes had to be reconstructed from notations (presumably incomplete) made in St. Petersburg before WWI. Likewise, Ivanov’s Grand Pas De Deux in which Prince Coqueluche (Koklush) spread out a veil gently gliding the Sugar Plum Fairy as if she were on ice (or icing sugar) has been revised or scrapped in most versions, although Balanchine’s Nutcracker still pays homage to it.
Perhaps the biggest downside to so many different Nutcracker versions over the years has been the progressive watering down of E.T.A Hoffmann’s original story and its aura of mystery, rooted in the German Romantic movement. Hoffmann’s tales often include fantastic elements coexisting with folklore (another example being Coppélia) which are sometimes ignored in favour of the ballet’s child-friendly aspects. However, some versions of the ballet seek to preserve the Romantic layers and its mystery, notably Nureyev’s version for the Paris Opera Ballet (POB) as well as Sir Peter Wright‘s for The Royal Ballet and for Birmingham Royal Ballet.
The first complete Nutcracker was staged in London by the Vic-Wells Ballet in 1934, based on choreographic notation by Nicholas Sergeyev. Ten years later saw the first US version by San Francisco Ballet (1944), and another ten years brought George Balanchine’s blockbusting version for NYCB (1954), now staged every year by several US ballet companies. By the 1980s, 300 separate productions were touring the US.
Sir Peter Wright’s versions
Sir Peter’s 1984 version of The Nutcracker for The Royal Ballet, still performed by the Company, stays close to Hoffmann’s original tale. It emphasises Drosselmeyer’s mission to find a young girl – Clara – who can break the curse imposed by the Mouse King on his nephew Hans Peter and thus restore him to human form. References to Nuremberg and German Christmas traditions are present in the settings, with a kingdom of marzipan featured in Act 2. Equally successful is his 1990 version for Birmingham Royal Ballet, this one closer to the Russian tradition of having Clara double up as the Sugar Plum Fairy, but with a slight twist: it is Clara’s alter ego ballerina doll who turns into the Fairy.
The Odd Ones
Nureyev’s production for POB has a clear emphasis on symbology and the subconscious: Clara wanders down the stairs at midnight to find her family and friends turned into rats and bats, while Drosselmeyer transforms into a handsome prince.
Mikhail Baryshnikov‘s 1976 popular version for ABT turns the Christmas dream into a coming-of-age tale. There is no Sugar Plum Fairy nor Prince Koklush, the focus being Clara’s encounter with the Nutcracker Prince as orchestrated by her Godfather Drosselmeyer. As the ballet ends, so does Clara’s fantasy.
More recently, the ballet has seen a flurry of ironic takes. In Mark Morris’s The Hard Nut (1991) the Stahlbaums are a suburban family with a fake Christmas tree, bad hairdos and too much to drink, the second act Arabian divertissement being a trio for oil sheiks. In Matthew Bourne‘s Nutcracker! (1992) Clara lives in an orphanage run by Mr. and Mrs. Dross and tries to win the heart of the hunky Nutcracker prince.
The sheer amount of versions make it impossible for us to list all the differences and twists in the various Nutcrackers around the world, but the storyline is more or less always the same:
- Herr Drosselmeyer
- Clara (or Marie, or Masha)
- Nutcracker Prince (or Hans Peter)
- Sugar Plum Fairy
- Her Prince Cavalier (Prince Koklush)
A Christmas party is taking place at the Stahlbaums’, parents to Clara and Fritz. Drosselmeyer brings his goddaughter Clara a gift of a nutcracker doll. Children being children, Fritz eventually grabs and breaks the Nutcracker doll much to Clara’s dismay. Drosselmeyer fixes it restoring peace amongst the youngsters. Guests depart and Clara suddenly sees herself surrounded by a fantasy world, where the Christmas tree grows, and dolls and soldiers come to life to battle with the mice who have also grown to Clara’s own size. She sees her Nutcracker doll leading the battle and being attacked by the Mouse King. She throws her slipper at the Mouse, liberating the Nutcracker who turns into a Prince. They embark on a magical journey, their first stop being the Land of Snow where snow flakes waltz around them in patterns, as if blown by the wind.
Clara and her Nutcraker Prince arrive at the Kingdom of Sweets where they are greeted by the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Prince Cavalier. They are invited to watch a series of divertissements representing exotic travels and various different sweets: Chocolate (Spanish dance) Coffee (Arabian dance) Tea (Chinese dance), the Russian Trépak (Cossacks), Mother Ginger & the polichinelles (in certain versions), along with the dance of the little pipes/Mirlitons and the Waltz of the Flowers. The celebrations close with the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Prince dancing a grand pas de deux. The curtain usually falls on Clara waking up back at home wondering whether it was all just a dream.
Tchaikovsky died in 1893 not knowing what a big success his work would achieve. He had been burned twice before when writing for ballet (with Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty), so he was less than enthusiastic to do so again but Vsevolozhsky convinced him on the basis that he would also be able to write the opera Iolanta which interested him more and which premiered on the same day as the ballet. Paradoxically, his Nutcracker score became, over the years, the more celebrated of the two works.
Having received the joint commission, Tchaikovsky started on The Nutcracker writing to his brother Anatoly in March 1891 that “the main thing is to get rid of the ballet; as to the opera I am so fascinated by it that if I could have two weeks of peace I would be sure to finish it on schedule”. As he embarked on a trip to Berlin and Paris en route to an American tour that same year, he heard of the death of his sister Sasha. Perhaps for this reason, a hint of sadness and nostalgia permeates The Nutcracker‘s haunting score.
He finished composing the ballet on 6 July 1891, having added to it a novelty instrument which he had bought during his tour in Paris, the celesta, which he used to give The Sugar Plum Fairy her characteristic sound of heavenly bells.
An essential Nutcracker Spotify/Ipod playlist should include the below tracks:
Op.71 – Overture
Op.71 – Act 1 – No. 1 The Christmas Tree
Op.71 – Act 1 – No. 2 March
Op.71 – Act 1 – No. 6 Clara and the Nutcracker
Op.71 – Act 1 – No. 7 The Nutcracker Battles the Army of the Mouse King
Op.71 – Act 1 – No. 8 In the Christmas Tree
Op.71 – Act 1 – No. 9 Scene and Waltz of the Snowflakes
Op.71 – Act 2 – No. 10 The Magic Castle on the Mountain of Sweets
Op.71 – Act 2 – No. 12a Character Dances: Chocolate (Spanish Dance)
Op.71 – Act 2 – No. 12b Character Dances: Coffee (Arabian Dance)
Op.71 – Act 2 – No. 12c Character Dances: Tea (Chinese Dance)
Op.71 – Act 2 – No. 12d Character Dances: Trépak (Russian Dance)
Op.71 – Act 2 – No. 12e Character Dances: Dance of the Reed Pipes
Op.71 – Act 2 – No. 12f Character Dances: Polchinelle
Op.71 – Act 2 – No. 13 Waltz of the Flowers
Op.71 – Act 2 – No. 14a Pas de deux: Intrada
Op.71 – Act 2 – No. 14b Pas de deux: Variation I (Tarantella)
Op.71 – Act 2 – No. 14c Pas de deux: Variation II (Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy)
Op.71 – Act 2 – No. 14d Pas de deux: Coda
Op.71 – Act 2 – No. 15 Final Waltz and Apotheosis
Original Choreography: MariusPetipa/Lev Ivanov
Music: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
Original Designs: M.I. Botcharov with K. Ivanov wit costumes by I.A. Vsevolozhsky
Original Cast: Antoinetta dell’Era as the Sugar Plum Fairy, Pavel Gerd as Prince “Koklush” (also known as Prince Coqueluche or Orgeat), Nikolay Legat as The Nutcraker Prince and Timofei Stukolkin as Drosselmeyer.
Premiere: 6 December 1892 Mariinsky (also credited as 17 December 1892)
Sources and Further Information
- Royal Opera House Nutcracker podcast
- The Royal Ballet’s Nutcracker Programme Notes.
- The Nutcracker History by Gerald Charles. Ballet Met Notes for The Nutcracker, November 1998 [link]
- Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker/Swan Lake/The Sleeping Beauty Highlights. Naxos Recording with the Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra. [link]
- The Refined Product of a Great Artist: Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta by Hugo Shirley. Opera Holland Park. [link]
- Nuts, Sluts, Rats and Bats by Judith Mackrell. The Guardian, December 2001. [link]
- How to Design the Nutcracker by Ismene Brown. The Arts Desk [link]
- Breaking Pointe: The Nutcracker is a Gift that Takes More than it Gives by Sarah Kaufman. The Washington Post [link]
- Wikipedia entry on The Nutcracker [link]