I thought that this year I would dig a little deeper into the history of one of my favourite Christmas traditions, going to see The Nutcracker! The Nutcracker plays a big role in many people’s holiday seasons, and depending on the city you live in, you may be going to see it any day now! However, do you know how it came to be a tradition? Sure, it is a gorgeous and enchanting ballet now, but did it start that way? Today’s post is all about the history of The Nutcracker, it’s humble beginnings, and what we are seeing now!
The Nutcracker ballet is based on the book of the same name by ETA Hoffman, and then adapted by Alexander Dumas. It is Dumas’ version that forms the basis for the ballet that we now love! (Yes, Alexander Dumas, the author of The Three Musketeers. So, before someone makes a comment about The Nutcracker is simply a children’s tale, a renowned author took care to shape it to the story we now know!)
The nutcracker doll that mysterious Godfather Drosselmeyer gives to little Marie for Christmas is no ordinary toy. On Christmas Eve, at the clocks strike midnight, Marie watches as the Nutcracker and her entire cabinet of playthings come to life and boldly do battle against the malevolent Mouse King and his armies. But this is only the start: read on for a tale of enchantment and transformation, enter a world by turns fantastical and sinister, a kindom of dolls and spun-sugar palaces, and learn the true history of the brave little Nutcracker. Adapted from a dark fairy-tale by ETA Hoffmann, Alexandre Dumas’ romance of childhood imagination inspired Tchaikovsky’s world-famous ballet.
The Ballet Storyline
The ballet begins as the main character’s (usually called Clara or Marie) family is preparing for a Christmas party. She is portrayed by a younger dancer, usually one who is between eleven and thirteen years of age. After Clara plays with her siblings, the party is seen to begin, with much dancing and merriment amongst the guests. Clara’s god-father or uncle (dependent upon the production), Drosselmeyer, presents Clara with a nutcracker as a present. Her brother Fritz breaks the nutcracker whilst playing with it. Drosselmeyer fixes the nutcracker for Clara, sometimes it will be done while she is present and other times while she is already in bed. Clara begins to dream, whereupon she is attacked by the Mouse King and his many minions. The Nutcracker rescues Clara by vanquishing the Mouse King in a dramatic finish to the first act. The second act begins with Clara waking up, now portrayed by an adult dancer. She is led, by her Prince, through the Kingdom of Sweets. The Sugar Plum Fairy also plays hostess throughout the kingdom, together with her Cavalier. The Nutcracker’s solo is first, which is followed by the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. Several different nationalities are represented in the kingdom. The Spanish dancers are representative ofhot chocolate and the Arabian of coffee. The energetic but controlled petite allegro that is the dance of tea is the Chinese duet, and the Russians are the dance of candy canes, offering the audience a lively mazurka. The Waltz of the Flowers showcases the beauty and grace of those living within the Kingdom of Sweets. Clara’s prince leads her away from the kingdom, and the ballet finishes with young Clara waking up on Christmas morning to find her fixed nutcracker.
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky composed the music for the Nutcracker, which premiered on December 17th, 1892. The ballet was commissioned by the Tsar, and was choreographed by Marius Petipa, whose works include Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, Don Quixote, La Bayadère, and Raymonda. And believe it or not, it was not overly well received by Russian society! Due to complaints about the choreography, the storyline, and even the dancers themselves. (I mean, in fairness, Russian society was well versed in ballet and theatre, but it was quite harsh…) There was a lot happening on stage, with a hectic battle scene, and children protraying Clara and Fitz for the entire show. As well, the main ballerina wasn’t featured until later in the second act- not what a ballet-literate audience wants to see!
The Nutcracker in the New World
The Nutcracker really picked up steam as it’s own production in the mid-twentieth century, with the San Francisco Ballet and the New York City Ballet beginning a new world holiday tradition. One of the large criticisms of the original production was the role of children in the ballet- should Petipa have featured children throughout? The newer American versions replaced Clara and Fitz with adult dancers for the second act, allowing for more fully realised choreography! (Also limiting a bit of the chaos on stage…)
George Balanchine is possibly the most notable figure in ballet in the last hundred years, and his NYCB Nutcracker production is the stuff of legends. When you picture The Nutcracker with rows of waving snowflakes, a 30 feet tree, and more party guests than you know what to do with, it’s probably his version… Although he can be a divisive figure in ballet history, his Nutcracker is still performed annually and is the first ballet for many patrons!
The Nutcracker Now
Nowadays, The Nutcracker actually takes many different forms. Some are shortened for children, some use different scores to appeal to different audiences, and geography plays a huge role. The Royal Winnipeg Ballet’s current version opens with boys playing street hockey in Hudson’s Bay Company hats, Royal Canadian Mounted Police lead the charge against the mouse king, and the sets are even modelled on a historic home here in Winnipeg! (The tiny polar bears are the cutest thing that has ever existed!) And the Nashville Ballet’s features a plantation mansion as its setting and Confederate soldiers do battle against the mouse king. If you are lucky enough to see the Australia Ballet
I hope that you have enjoyed this little snippet of holiday and ballet history! If you are interested in sources or more information, please let me know. (This post was written from one of my older historical pieces, so I have academic sources for anyone interested.) The Nutcracker is an important ballet, and an important holiday tradition! Although it feels like it has always occupied the hallowed space it does now, it had quite the humble start.