A Shimmering, Dancing Fairyland: Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker

When Tsar Alexander III saw the opening performance of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker in 1892, in a double performance with Iolanta, Tchaikovsky’s last opera, he was reportedly delighted by it.

In this, he was nearly alone. Too childish, many critics complained. Too many actual children, others added. Terrible dancing, many agreed. Incomprehensible dancing, noted others, especially in that bit between—what was it? Toy soldiers and some mice? Just dreadful. A very boring second act where absolutely nothing happened, several grumbled. Completely unfaithful to either of the original versions of the story, said fans of E.T.A. Hoffmann and Alexander Dumas, pere. A few even made very unkind comments about the appearances of the various dancers, calling some of them fat.

Everyone, however, agreed on one thing: the music was outstanding.

And everyone, including the Tsar, failed to predict what would happen over the next 126 years.

After the initial failure of his first ballet, Swan Lake, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky avoided writing any ballets for a good decade. But his second ballet, Sleeping Beauty, which premiered in 1889, proved a success, convincing both Tchaikovsky and the Imperial Theatres that ballets based on existing instead of more or less original fairy tales could be a hit.

For this third ballet, dancer/choreographer Marius Petipa chose to work from Histoire d’un casse-noisette, by Alexandre Dumas, pere, an adaptation of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Nussknacker und Mausekönig, or The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. Petipa presumably chose the Dumas version partly because it was written in French, then the official language of the Russian court and widely spoken in St. Petersburg, and partly because, while keeping to the same plot, Dumas had eliminated some of the less child friendly parts of the story (ALTHOUGH MARIE IS STILL SEVEN AND STILL ENDS UP GETTING MARRIED IN THE END right, we’re on the ballet now, not the original story, moving on) and other disturbing elements (IF NOT ALL OF THEM) and partly because Dumas was one of the most popular authors of the 19th century. His name, it was hoped, would draw crowds.

But even the somewhat more child-friendly, straightforward plot of Dumas’ adaptation was not quite child-friendly and straightforward enough for Petipa. The choreographer made several changes to the story while writing the libretto—most notably, completely eliminating the complex backstory involving a palace fight, an unconcerned princess and the nephew of Herr Drosselmeier, the man who—supposedly—carved the Nutcracker and other toys in the first place. The ballet version, Petipa decided, would instead focus on the Christmas party—the first act—and the journey of little Marie (or, as she was about to be named in many productions, Clara) to a fairyland filled with dancing fairies and talking sweets. Also, no one would get married at all, eliminating that rather disturbing part of the original.

While working on all of this, Petipa fell ill and turned the duties over to his assistant, Lev Ivanov. As a result, no one is quite sure which parts of the original choreography were created by Petipa, and which parts by Ivanov. This perhaps explains why many later productions ignored Petipa’s plans entirely and put the disturbing elements right back in, or made changes of their own. Or, more likely, later productions simply recognized the reality: the ballet, in its initial form, was not that popular. To win over audiences, changes would have to be made.

But that took years—partly because the original choreography was not particularly popular. The Imperial Theatre continued to perform it, now and again, creating a strong impression on a tiny George Balanchine, then training with the Imperial Ballet School. One Russian dancer, Anna Pavlova, used a scene from The Nutcracker in her own ballet production, Snowflakes, which otherwise had nothing to do with the ballet. And a selection of music from the ballet, chosen by Tchaikovsky himself, and called The Nutcracker Suite, proved popular. But by the early 20th century, the ballet was starting to fall by the wayside, rescued—unexpectedly enough—by World War I and the Russian Revolution.

War and revolution turned out to be less than ideal environments for composing popular ballets, which left Alexander Gorsky of the Bolshoi Ballet, desperate to have something to perform once the theatres reopened after the war in 1919, in a bit of a bind. The Nutcracker had several advantages: yes, the story originally came from Germany, a country not exactly popular in Russia at the time, but the composer was most definitely Russian. Most audiences had not had the chance to see it. And, Gorsky felt, the libretto and choreography could easily be improved.

Indeed, he felt, only one change was really needed. Mindful of previous criticisms, Gorsky eliminated the child roles of Clara and the Nutcracker, turning them into adult dancers—adults dancers falling in love. This simultaneously solved the “these kids can’t dance” and “nothing happens in the second act” problems, along with the “SHE’S ONLY SEVEN OR EIGHT YEARS OLD WHY IS SHE GETTING MARRIED” problem from the original story. This production proved popular—and proved that, like Swan Lake, The Nutcracker was flexible enough to allow for multiple variations.

The Russian Revolution and the subsequent formation of the Soviet Union also incidentally allowed The Nutcracker to start spreading around the globe. Several dancers, renowned for close ties to Russian aristocrats or having other reasons to fear the Soviet regime, fled to other parts of Europe and the United States, bringing The Nutcracker with them. They created productions in Vienna, Paris and London—and eventually, a 1940 abridged travelling production led by Alexandra Fedorova, which brought The Nutcracker to the United States.

These productions in turn helped to bring The Nutcracker Suite to the attention of Walt Disney and Leopold Stokowski, then selecting music for the 1940 Fantasia. The eventual result showcased animated fairies, flowers, goldfish and cute mushrooms to a heavily edited selection of music from The Nutcracker Suite. The film was an initial flop, and music purists deplored both the choice of The Nutcracker Suite and the arrangement Disney used, claiming—with considerable justification—that Disney had butchered the score. But the animation for that sequence, nearly everyone agreed, was exquisite—not just one of the highlights of the film, but one of the all-time highlights of hand drawn animation, rivaled only by a few sequences in Pinocchio, Sleeping Beauty (also based on Tchaikovsky’s music), and in the rest of Fantasia. Subsequent releases helped bring The Nutcracker Suite to a wider audience.

It’s not clear if American choreographer William Christiensen, then living in San Francisco, and Russian dancer Alexandra Danilova and former Russian dancer turned choreographer George Balanchine had any of this in mind when they met in the early 1940s. Danilova and Balanchine, initially trained in the Russian Imperial Ballet, had both fled the Soviet Union—and their prestigious careers—in 1924; it was perhaps not surprising, with another Russian war in progress, that they would start to remember the times before World War I, when a very young Balanchine had danced a small part in a production of The Nutcracker. Christiensen, enthralled by their dancing and their tales, decided he needed to create his own Nutcracker, releasing it through the San Francisco Ballet in 1944. Despite the war time conditions—or perhaps because of those conditions—that production was an instant hit. The San Francisco Ballet has performed some version of The Nutcracker every Christmas season since.

Christiensen’s version was restricted to one United States city, and Fantasia was still, in 1944, a major financial disaster seen by regrettably few people. But the conversation inspired George Balanchine to choreograph his own version, one based fairly closely on his own The Nutcracker memories. Since he had danced in the ballet as a child, he cast actual children to play the children, and added splendid stage effects, including a stage trick that transforms the Nutcracker into a prince, and another stage trick that almost makes it look as if little Clara’s bed is FLYING. First performed in 1954 by the New York City Ballet, it was an instant hit: the New York City Ballet has performed it every year since, with only limited changes.

And after that, seemingly every ballet production in every city had to have its own Nutcracker—to the point where when Maurice Sendak was asked to help design a new Nutcracker in 1981, his immediate, heartfelt response was “To begin with, who in the world needed a new Nutcracker?”

The answer, it seemed, was “ballet companies.” For them, The Nutcracker wasn’t just a holiday tradition, but an annual way to raise revenues and get parents to show children (or, in some cases, children to show parents) just what this ballet thing was all about. Even now, most U.S. ballet companies derive a fairly significant portion of their revenues from annual performances of The Nutcracker. It’s probably a bit much to say that The Nutcracker saved American ballet companies—nearly all of them continued to produce other features throughout the year—but it is fair to say that The Nutcracker helped.

Most American productions remain more or less based on Balanchine’s version: that is, a first act featuring a Christmas party where little Clara—or Marie—receives the gift of a Nutcracker, which is soon broken by Fritz. Later, Clara falls asleep by the Christmas tree, to be woken by fighting and dancing mice and toys. The Nutcracker turns into a young prince, dragging Clara—or Marie—or her bed off to Act 2, where Clara and the Nutcracker Prince travel to a fairy land and watch the dances of the Nutcracker Suite. The Russian productions, not surprisingly, often remain fairly faithful to the original staging. Other productions take advantage of the music’s flexibility.

In some productions, the Nutcracker Prince and Clara remain children in the second act; in other productions, they are danced by adults—with a hint of romance. Some versions add clowns (as a sidenote, I remain somewhat surprised at just how many choreographers think that Tchaikovsky’s music can be improved with a couple of clowns), or have Herr Drosselmeier, the creator of the Nutcracker, do magic tricks. Sometimes Herr Drosselmeier’s nephew (the Nutcracker in the original tale) makes an appearance; sometimes he doesn’t. Some productions feature numerous children in the first act; others keep the number of children down to three or four at most. In some cases, the little mice soldiers are all kids (and in at least two productions, little kids storming the stage by tricycle, which may not be exactly traditional let alone well danced but, undeniably cute). Some productions suggest that the second act is all a dream; others want everyone—especially children—to believe it is all quite, quite real.

Other productions have made far more substantial chances. The Hard Nut even went to the point of changing its title; completely abandoning the 19th century setting used by traditional productions, it used a 1950s setting and introduced a full romance between Clara and Herr Drosselmeier’s nephew. In 1992 Matthew Bourne, who had made such striking changes to Swan Lake, transformed The Nutcracker into the story of poor little orphan Clara and her fight to save the hot young (and shirtless!) Nutcracker from wealthy mean girl Sugar. It’s notable also for including a bit where a dancer performs an elaborate, acrobatic “Café—Dance Arabe” while holding a smoking cigarette in his mouth like, kids, don’t try this at home. It all looks to be going to very very sad places, but just as I assumed that it was all ending in tears (OR A MAJOR FIRE OR A LONG STINT IN A BURN UNIT), even Bourne succumbs to the sugary sweetness of the ballet and provides a very happy if not exactly earned ending. Hey. It’s the holidays. And The Nutcracker.

Those cheery holiday thoughts did not stop Russian artist Mikhail Chemiakin and choreographer Kirill Simonov from creating a version in 2001 that strongly suggested that Masha (Clara) and the Nutcracker Prince ended their days as cake toppers EATEN BY MICE like I can understand getting completely sick of The Nutcracker, really, I can, but the horror note seems just slightly out of place. But then again, proof that if you want to do something really different with the ballet, you can.

The Nutcracker has also been performed on ice—strictly speaking, limited selections from The Nutcracker have been performed on ice—and preserved in various film versions, all more or less unfaithful to the original story and staging.

And each and every holiday season, selections of The Nutcracker Suite drum into our ears nearly continuously—something that Disney’s soon to be released The Nutcracker and the Four Realms will presumably only intensify this year.

All somewhat remarkable, when you think about it: a story largely based on a broken toy, a mouse invasion, and a decision to just give up on Christmas altogether and run off to another world, creating a holiday tradition, blockbuster films, and above all, nearly ubiquitous holiday music? Maybe more than astonishing: unbelievable.

But then again, the one thing that nearly everyone has been able to agree with, from The Nutcracker’s very first performance, is that whatever can be said about the ballet and its trimmings, the music? Excellent. It’s perhaps no wonder that for so many, it’s been so inspiring.

Mari Ness lives in central Florida.

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