If you\’re like me, The Nutcracker was probably some of the first exposure you had to ballet. It\’s an annual tradition around Christmastime and most cities feature at least one version (sometimes with Harleys or Hip Hop!) to enjoy.
The interesting thing is that this annual tradition was not well-received at its first performance. In fact, the reviews were pretty grim when the ballet premiered in 1892. Critic Birzhevye Vedmosti even went to far to say \”The Nutcracker cannot in any event be called a ballet.\” Another wrote: \”…it is a pity that so much fine music is expended on nonsense unworthy of attention.\” Yikes!
The Nutcracker Ballet premiered December 17, 1892 at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia. Composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and Mariinsky dancer Lev Ivanov (most likely under the direction of Marius Petipa) had been commissioned to create a ballet based on author E.T.A. Hoffman\’s story \”The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.\” Unfortunately, there are no YouTube videos of the performance because both the audience and the critics considered it a major letdown and it would be great to know why. Lev Ivanov\’s style was to often create intricate patterns (he also choreographed Swan Lake) and it begs to wonder if the patterns in that first performance were too complex for a children\’s tale.
From that point on, many choreographers tried their hands (er… feet?) at creating an audience-friendly version of the ballet. The San Francisco Ballet is the first American ballet company to perform the ballet over the pond in 1944. Ten years later it was George Balanchine\’s choreography for the New York City Ballet which became the company\’s first full length ballet and an instant classic. For most companies in the US and around the world, The Nutcracker is now a yearly tradition (some \”On the Rocks\” or Theatrical or Charlestonian).
The home of Doctor and Frau Stahlbaum is a blaze of laughter and light as revelers gather around the Christmas tree and children open gifts with excitement. Herr Drosselmeyer arrives to delight the children with gifts and life-size dancing dolls. To young Clara, Drosselmeyer presents a nutcracker doll. Clara\’s younger brother Fritz becomes jealous and steals the nutcracker. Inevitably the doll is broken and then temorarily repaired by Drosselmeyer and a handkerchief.
Long after the party has ended, Clara sneaks back to the Christmas tree to check on her beloved toy and falls asleep.The clock strikes midnight and Drosselmeyer-who had left the party hours earlier-mysteriously appears. The Christmas tree becomes enormous and the toys life size. Mice led by the Mouse King swarm into the room to be engaged in battle by the Nutcracker and his army of toy soldiers. The Nutcracker is cornered by the Mouse King and Clara manages to distract him by throwing her shoe (in some ballets, tugging the mouse\’s tail). The Nutcracker prevails but is injured and Drosselmeyer\’s magic reveals that he is truly a handsome prince.
The Nutcracker Prince carries Clara away to the Land of Snow in his magical sleigh where they are greeted by dancing snowflakes. The sleigh continues to the Land of Sweets, home of the Sugar Plum Fairy. Dancers from foreign lands entertain them as honored guests.
In the end, Clara is swept home aboard the sleigh and awakens beneath the Christmas tree clutching her Nutcracker.
Why is this ballet so special?
Well, The Nutcracker is special to a lot of people for a lot of different reasons. For some it is a family tradition. For others it\’s a beautiful piece of history that is ever-changing, ever-evolving. The music of The Nutcracker is also well known and instantly recognizable.
And for us dancers it is a time-honored tradition that marks the development of our technique and careers. Many ballet students take part in increasingly involved roles as the years pass and they build their skill and talent in the dance.
What is your favorite vignette or piece of music from The Nutcracker?
The Nutcracker and the Mouse King by E.T.A. Hoffman
101 Stories of the Great Ballets by George Balanchine and Francis Mason