Written by Robyn Jutsum
The Nutcracker is a beloved, treasured tradition. The holiday season and December at The Ballet Spot would not be complete without a trip to the Land of Sweets by way of this festive ballet. This year, things are much different, and while we may not be able to perform or attend the ballet in-person, we are nevertheless thrilled to bring this ballet staple to life!
A brief synopsis (interpretations of the plot vary):
Taking place on Christmas Eve, young Marie (or Clara) celebrates with her family at a grand house party. When her mysterious godfather Drosselmeyer arrives, she and the other children are introduced to a variety of toys brought to life by Drosselmeyer’s magic. He brings his young apprentice and nephew along who assists in the presentation of the toys. The final toy presented is a nutcracker prince and is bestowed upon Marie as a Christmas gift. As the party winds down, Marie finds herself asleep underneath the tree but soon awakes to the rustling of mice and a tree larger than life. A battle between an evil mouse king (or queen) and her suddenly lifesize Nutcracker ensues.
The Nutcracker corrals his fellow toys to come to his aid, but it is ultimately Marie who saves him by throwing her slipper at the mouse king, knocking him out cold. As if a curse has been lifted, the Nutcracker transforms into a handsome prince (suspiciously resembling Drosselmeyer’s nephew) who guides Marie through a snowy forest and welcomes her into his Land of Sweets. End of Act I.
Act II. Greeted by the kingdom, the two enjoy performances by various divertissements--Spanish/Chocolate, Arabian/Coffee, Chinese/Tea, Russian/Candy Cane, French/Marzipan, Mother Ginger--as well as the Dewdrop Fairy and her Waltz of the Flowers along with the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier. After the festivities, it is time for Marie to leave and, as she bids her newfound friends farewell, discovers she has awakened. Having fallen asleep with her nutcracker underneath a back-to-normal sized tree, she realizes it was all a dream.
The origins of the fabled nutcracker prince were established by E.T.A. Hoffmann in 1816. Hoffmann wrote “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King,” a slightly darker tale than what most of us are familiar with today though the premise remains: Marie Stahlbaum’s nutcracker soldier, a Christmas gift, comes to life and battles an evil mouse king before taking Marie to his kingdom. In 1845, French author, Alexandre Dumas, adapted the original story and gave it a brighter spin, “The Tale of the Nutcracker.”
In 1892, Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov created a two-act ballet, The Nutcracker, based on Hoffmann’s original story, with music composed by Tchaikovsky. Petipa, unfortunately, was unable to see his contributions through to the final product due to illness, and Ivanov took over to complete the ballet.
Tchaikovsky, while writing the ballet, discovered the celesta (celeste), often known as the bell-piano for its angelic, ethereal bell-like sound. A cousin of the piano, this instrument was invented in 1886 by Auguste Mustel, and it would become the inspiration for the iconic Sugar Plum Fairy’s variation. There’s a great little feature on the celesta through The Australian Ballet, part of their “Behind the Ballet: Meet the Instruments,” which you can read here.
The ballet premiered in 1892 at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia though a suite of the music had debuted earlier to positive reception. The role of the Sugar Plum Fairy was danced by Antoinetta dell'Era, an Italian ballerina, who received criticism as did the ballet. Originally, the ballet received mixed, if not heavily negative, reviews (the movement was boring, music “too symphonic,” costumes were tasteless, etc.).
In 1940, Walt Disney included Tchaikovsky’s music into the film, Fantasia, which helped introduce it to an American audience and in general, new ears. Soon after, the Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo toured with an abbreviated version of the ballet, Nut, which further helped boost popular opinion of the ballet and score. In 1944, William Christensen choreographed his own version of the Nutcracker which premiered with his company, the San Francisco Ballet (SFB). You can watch the trailer for SFB’s Nutcracker here.
One of the best-known versions of the ballet is George Balanchine’s, performed annually by New York City Ballet. An in-depth look at Balanchine’s interpretation can be found through Pacific Northwest Ballet here. It was even adapted for film in 1993 featuring then-child actor, Macaulay Culkin.
The ballet has been passed down through generations of dancers including George Balanchine (who performed in the original cast at the Mariinsky as a young boy), Rudolf Nureyev, and Alexei Ratmansky. It is a longstanding tradition for families, dancers, and the arts community at large. Adaptations extend beyond the cookie-cutter classical mold, including a scene in the Radio City Rockettes Christmas Spectacular (Fun Fact: Our wonderful instructor, Ali, once danced the role of Clara for the national tour) and Debbie Allen’s Hot Chocolate Nutcracker, now available on Netflix.
Dance Spirit Magazine offers a great timeline of the ballet here. And TIME Magazine includes an interesting look at ballet’s influence on American Ballet which you can access here.