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Nutty for “The Nutcracker” Ballet: History, Story, Music, Dance & Holiday Magic

“Every holiday season, throughout the land, Mirlitons, Candy Canes, and other treats bounce briskly through The Nutcracker’s Kingdom of the Sweets.” (The Ballet Companion p.158)

“The Nutcracker” ballet is such an epic part of Christmastime, though I know that everyone isn’t in love with the classic tale. It’s true that some find the first act’s formal dances and party traditions boring, and sometimes the second act’s character variations can veer into the racist and orientalist, but whatever legitimate complaints there may be, the ballet is now entrenched in winter culture nearly worldwide. 

I can’t possibly provide an exhaustive account of such a dancing phenomenon, but I’d like to share some of the history and my own fascination with the music, dancing, costumes, and magical story. Hopefully it sparks a bit of your own childlike wonder, dreams, and fantasies as well as your grown-up appreciation of music, storytelling, and the art of dance.

My live video recording of the Nutty for the Nutcracker podcast is on YouTube

A Holiday Classic

Back at the time Balanchine’s Complete Stories of the Great Ballets was published in 1977, he said of The Nutcracker:

“It is another sign of how popular ballet has become that today many companies perform The Nutcracker. It has almost become a kind of annual Christmas ritual in many American and Canadian cities. Of course this was not always so. We used to rely on a touring company to give us a truncated version of this full-length work, a ballet people used to call Nutcracker Suite because they knew the music better than the ballet. Now that is all different. I have heard that more than fifty groups do this ballet. The one we do in New York every Christmas was first presented in 1954 and we have been doing it every year since.” (p.387)

More recently in A Child’s Introduction to Ballet, Laura Lee describes how the ballet has taken off: “The Nutcracker is a Christmas holiday favorite and the most popular ballet in America. There are more than 2,000 performances of it every year around the country. You will probably have a chance to see it someday–and maybe even dance in it yourself, since it has a lot of roles for young dancers.” (p.47)

Audio-only version of Podcast 076 on Spotify or wherever you enjoy your podcasts 🙂

Nutcracker Story’s Literary Origins

In the introduction to The Story of the Nutcracker by E.T.A. Hoffmann, Adapted by Bob Blaisdell there is a little biographical information on Hoffmann:

“Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann (1776-1822) was one of the most prominent figures of nineteenth-century German literature and music. After studying law at the University of Koenigsberg, Hoffman held a number of civil-service posts, but his true vocation was artistic. During his civil-service career, Hoffman also made a name for himself in intellectual and artistic circles. His surviving musical works (many of his compositions have been lost) include ten operas, two symphonies, two masses, piano and chamber music, incidental music for plays and more.

Despite such prolific output, Hoffman is best known for his literary endeavors. His most famous works include stories such as ‘The Golden Flower Pot,’ ‘A New Year’s Eve Adventure’ and, of course, ‘Nutcracker and the King of Mice,’ upon which The Story of the Nutcracker is based. The original story, completed in 1816, first appeared in a collection of children’s Christmas stories, Kindermaerchen von C. W. Contessa, Friedrich Baron de la Motte Fouquer und E. T. A. Hoffmann. Though Hoffmann did not consider it a technical success–he felt it contained too many adult elements for a true children’s story–it has become a perennial favorite with young and old alike.” (The Story of the Nutcracker p.v)

I also learned about E.T.A. Hoffmann, Alexandre Dumas, Tchaikovsky and the gang in this “The History of the Nutcracker Ballet” video from The Dance Channel on YouTube. Nutcracker and the King of Mice/The Story of the Nutcracker by E.T.A. Hoffmann was published in 1816 and The Story of the Hazelnut Cracker by Alexandre Dumas in 1844, this version being proposed to Tchaikovsky in 1891.

Although I wasn’t willing to go all the way down the psychological rabbit hole, there was some interesting commentary on Hoffman in the reviewer’s description of Baryshnikov’s version of The Nutcracker in Balanchine’s Complete Stories of the Great Ballets: “Baryshnikov sees Hoffmann as a benevolent story teller, a giver of dreams like the Drosselmeyer this Nutcracker celebrates. ‘His tales,’ says Baryshnikov, ‘are full of his own cartoons and full of his own incredible feeling about being an artist.’ In fact, Hoffmann was a frustrated artist, misunderstood by his public and unhappy in his personal life.
His stories are riddled with the grotesque and the violent, and they end, more often than not, in merciless imaginative revenges upon fictionalized enemies. The benevolence of Nutcracker comes partly from the lyric strain in Hoffmann, partly from Aledandre Dumas, who rewrote the original tale and changed its ending, and partly, of course, from Baryshnikov’s own fertile imagination.
The revenge motif remains, giving this Nutcracker its most significant difference from all previous American productions, and bringing it a step closer to Hoffmann. Clara does dream of getting back at the adults who have hurt and frustrated her. Also the psychoanalytic meaning of the work’s title has been clarified by the changes Baryshnikov has made. But the grand difference is that for Clara, unlike Hoffmann, living well, or at least dreaming of living well, is the best revenge.” (p.394)

More recently, Matthew Donnell’s Boy with the Patch Children’s book telling Drosselmeier’s story

Nutcracker Ballet History

1892 Petipa’s The Nutcracker premieres with Antonietta Dell’Era as the Sugar Plum Fairy.” (The Ballet Companion p.295)

The Dance Channel “The History of the Nutcracker Ballet” video

shares additional insights on the creation of the ballet: Petipa created Sugarplum and Cavalier roles (not in the Hoffmann or Dumas stories) to dance the grand pas, 1892 Petipa fell ill and had to quit the production, Lev Ivanov stepped in to complete the choreographic staging. On December 17, 1892 it debuted, San Francisco Ballet debuted the first American performance in 1944, Balanchine’s version in 1954 influenced many modern productions.

Eliza Gaynor Minden explains Petipa & Tchaikovsky’s important roles in creating the ballet, in her The Ballet Companion: “For Petipa the dance came first; he used plot and drama in the service of pure dance rather than the reverse. He was a master of the classical set piece: the grand pas, the divertissement, and the ballet blanc. He championed Tchaikovsky’s music–then considered too symphonic and not sufficiently ‘dansant’ for ballet. His works–Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker, Don Quixote, La Bayadère, Raymonda–are beloved and for many the very definition of the word ‘ballet.’” (The Ballet Companion p.127)

Of course, George Balanchine and Francis Mason have a lot more to say about the history of and adaptations to The Nutcracker in Balanchine’s Complete Stories of the Great Ballets, but I will just include a few notes here:

“The three scenes of the ballet are arranged in two acts. In the first act, we are in the real world but begin a journey to the magical kingdom of the second.” (Balanchine’s Complete Stories of the Great Ballets p.387-8)

Balanchine credits Ivanov for the choreography and doesn’t delve into why he had to take over from Petipa, but does describe subsequent productions: “Classic Ballet in two acts. Music by Tchaikovsky. Choreography by Lev Ivanov. Book by Lev Ivanov. Scenery by M. I. Botcharov. First presented at the Maryinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg, December 17, 1892, […]
First presented in Western Europe by the Sadler’s Wells Ballet at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London, January 30, 1934, with Alicia Markova and Harold Turner. This version was staged by Nicholas Sergyev, after Ivanov. First presented in the United States in an abbreviated form by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo at the Fifty-first Street Theatre, New York, October 17, 1940, with Alicia Markova and Andre Eglevsky […]
First presented in the United States in complete form by the San Francisco Ballet, 1944, with choreography by William Christensen. Presented by the New York City Ballet, with choreography by George Balanchine, February 2, 1954, … (Balanchine’s Complete Stories of the Great Ballets p.387)

Of his personal experience with The Nutcracker ballet, Balanchine reminisces: “I have liked this ballet from the first time I danced in it as a boy, when I did small roles in the Maryinsky Theatre production. When I was fifteen, I danced the Nutcracker Prince. Years later in New York, when our company decided to do an evening-long ballet, I preferred to turn to The Nutcracker, with which American audiences were not sufficiently familiar. I accordingly went back to the original score, restored cuts that had been made, and in the development of the story chose to use the original story by E.T.A. Hoffmann, although keeping the outlines of the dances as given at the Maryinsky. A prologue was added and the dances restaged.” (Balanchine’s Complete Stories of the Great Ballets p.387)

In the Nutcracker Ballet Coloring Book that I love to use for sources of imagery in my children’s ballet classes, Brenda Sneathen Mattox adds:

“It has become extremely popular, especially during the Christmas season, when many dance companies present it to the delight of children everywhere! Who wouldn’t like to see a ballet with a trip to the Land of Sweets in a walnut boat, or a battle between a Nutcracker doll and a Mouse King! In some versions of The Nutcracker, the little girl’s name is Marie, rather than Clara–Marie was the name of the character in E.T.A. Hoffmann’s tale ‘The Nutcracker and the Mouse King,’ upon which the original ballet was based.” (Nutcracker Ballet Coloring Book)

Me as Clara, with Drosselmeier with West Hawai’i Dance Theatre

My History with “The Nutcracker”

My first Nutcracker performance was at the age of about eight in the role of Tin Soldier at the Aloha Theatre in Kainaliu, Hawai’i. I hope I can find photographic evidence of this while I am back home visiting next month, but meanwhile you can imagine me with red-circle-sticker cheeks and a plywood rifle spray-painted silver 🙂 I remember growing as a dancer, subsequently performing Party Girl, Clara, Snowflake, Flower, Arabian, and Mirliton (my favorite) in productions with West Hawai’i Dance Theatre. My teacher, Virginia Holte, danced Sugarplum for many years, and guest dancers would perform as her Cavalier and other leading roles.

At North Carolina School of the Arts I also played a Flower and Arabian Dancer and I remember the fresh new costumes we danced in (some of which I see are still in use!). The live music was a treat!

In costume for Arabian at North Carolina School of the Arts

As an audience member, I have also been fortunate to see a productions at the Pacific Northwest Ballet and Ballet Hawai’i (before the Septime Webre-directed revamp).

I was hoping to be able to include a new version of the Nutcracker this year, as we were scheduled to see the Russian Classical City Ballet perform here in Cologne this month. However, the performance has been postponed until January, will let you know what I think then!

Themes from Nutcracker & other Fairytales

Birds and Supernatural Creatures are common ideas in many fairytales, including in “Cinderella,” “Hansel and Gretel,” and “The Nutcracker.” “The Nutcracker” features the owl at the top of the grandfather clock come-to-life as Drosselmeier, the animated toy soldiers, fighting rats, snowflake and flower dancers, and all the magical inhabitants of the Land of Sweets.

Hansel and Gretel” and “The Nutcracker” also share houses or entire lands made up of sweet treats. “The Nutcracker” also has themes related to dreaming, kindness, and bravery as in “Cinderella,” “Hansel and Gretel,” & “Sleeping Beauty,” and all three have courageous female protagonists. 

Tchaikovsky’s Music

I can sing or whistle the music of The Nutcracker from start to finish and feel that each of the musical compositions creates an evocative experience that moves the story forward while celebrating each of the lands traverse in their grand adventure. A few pieces of music in particular are my favorites, including the Waltzes of the Snowflakes and Flowers, and both the Snow and Sugar Plum Pas de Deux

“Next time you hear Tchaikovsky’s ‘Waltz of the Flowers’ from The Nutcracker, listen for the ‘one two three one two three’ rhythm that makes it a waltz.” (The Ballet Companion p.184)

I found this story of Tchaikovsky’s composition of the music for the ballet, “The Dark Side of the Nutcracker,” to be a beautiful exposition in particular of the music of the Sugarplum Pas de Deux in relationship to a difficult time for the composer:

I also find the level of innovation present in this classical ballet fascinating, for on example in the music instrumentation: “Marius Petipa asked Tchaikovsky to make the music for the Sugar Plum Fairy sound like the sprays of a fountain. To do this Tchaikovsky used a brand-new instrument, the celesta. It is played like a piano but when the keys are struck, the hammers inside hit metal bars instead of strings.” (A Child’s Introduction to Ballet p.48)

Telling the Nutcracker Story through Music & Dance

Here are the selected music tracks that I use in telling the tale with small children who are not yet ready for the full production and for creative and improvisational retellings with dancers of all ages, ‘Nutcracker’ Story for Creative Dance playlist on Spotify:

The brief synopsis of the story from The Usborne Book of Ballet and Dance by Annabel Thomas may suffice to set the tone: “Clara is given a Nutcracker for Christmas. At night all her gifts come to life. Clara rescues the Nutcracker from a fight between toy soldiers and some mice. He takes her to the Kingdom of the Sweets, where fairytale characters entertain her.” (The Usborne Book of Ballet and Dance p.42)

Or this slightly different take (interesting which versions chalk it up to a dream and which assume the realness of the magical worlds): “It’s Christmas, and young Clara is given a nutcracker doll. She dreams that it comes to life, turns into a prince, and leads the toy soldiers under the Christmas tree into battle against the rats. AFter Clara helps the nutcracker Prince win the battle, she goes on a magical journey with him through the land of snow to the Kingdom of Sweets. Snowflakes, flowers, and candy canes dance for her, but most beautiful of all is the Sugar Plum Fairy.” (How to… Ballet p.54)

Then we can explore the story with improvisations for six major scenes:

1. Scene One: Preparations for the party, Guests arrive & dance

“The overture of the ballet is bright and delicate. Pizzicato strings and tinkling triangles create a light, intimate atmosphere that sets the stage for the action.” (Balanchine’s Complete Stories of the Great Ballets p.388)

“The story of The Nutcracker starts out on Christmas Eve at the home of the Stahlbaums. The family is holding a lavish party. The ladies dance in their colorful dresses and the gentlemen in their finest jackets, but young Marie is waiting for one guest in particular, her godfather, Drosselmeier.
Some people are frightened of Drosselmeier, but not Marie. She thinks he is clever and mysterious, and oh, what magical gifts he brings! Handcrafted wind-up toys, trains, soldiers, and spinning dolls.
This year, he brings the most wonderful gift of all, a wooden nutcracker. Marie skips off to bed that night with the nutcracker tucked safely under her arm. But just as she is drifting off to sleep she hears a sound.” (A Child’s Introduction to Ballet p.46)

“Dr. Stahlbaum divides the children for games and dances. The boys do a brisk march and then there is a polite formal quadrille for the girls and the boys. Some of the grown-ups join in.” (Balanchine’s Complete Stories of the Great Ballets p.388)

Me as Clara in the Party Scene with West Hawai’i Dance Theatre

2. Scene Two: Drosselmeier’s arrival, Dolls

“Herr Drosselmeyer, an old family friend who is also Marie’s godfather. He wears a patch over one eye. He is a mysterious man, a marvelous inventor of moving toys, and he has brought with him three large boxes and also his handsome young nephew. […] The gifts in the huge boxes delight everyone–a Harlequin and Columbine and a Toy Soldier who dance to jolly tunes. Then Drosselmeyer brings out a large Nutcracker, a soldier, for Marie.” (Balanchine’s Complete Stories of the Great Ballets p.388)

3. Scene Three: Battle Scene

“Peeking over the top of her blanket, Marie sees a giant mouse rising out of the floor with an entire mouse army behind him. 
Just then, the nutcracker sits upright, throws off his blanket and leaps from the bed. He draws his wooden sword and raises it above his head. [..]
The nutcracker and a battalion of toy soldiers battle the Mouse King. Although the nutcracker fights bravely, the mouse knocks him down. Marie takes off her slipper and throws it at the mouse, who is startled long enough for the nutcracker to recover and win the battle.
While Marie is catching her breath, Drosselmeier appears and reveals the secret of his Christmas present. The nutcracker is actually a handsome prince, and Marie’s love for him has broken the spell.” (A Child’s Introduction to Ballet p.47-8)

“The tree grows taller and taller, to a huge height. The mice are big too, and it is good that the soldiers are there to protect her. They battle the mice, but the mice, led by their fierce king, seem to be winning. Then the Nutcracker, grown to life size, rises from his bed and leads the soldiers. […] Marie throws her slipper, which hits the king of the mice by surprise. The Nutcracker runs him through with his sword, and the battle is won.” (Balanchine’s Complete Stories of the Great Ballets p.389)

4. Scene Four: Snowy Forest

“She arrives at the Kingdom of Snow and is met by the Nutcracker, who before her very eyes suddenly turns into a handsome young prince. He bows to Marie, gives her the crown taken from the king of the mice and leads her away on a magic journey. In a snowy forest, snowflakes dance.” (Balanchine’s Complete Stories of the Great Ballets p.389)

“The prince takes Marie on a journey through the snow, to a magical kingdom where people from all nations take turns showing off their own special dances.” (A Child’s Introduction to Ballet p.48)

5. Scene Five: Land of Sweets

“The Sugarplum Fairy, who rules over this Kingdom of Sweets, makes a regal entry. She dances a charming variation to the tinkling celesta.” (Balanchine’s Complete Stories of the Great Ballets p.389)

“We now watch a series of dances by the creatures of the candy kingdom. When they are finished, the Sugarplum Fairy and her cavalier perform the grandest dance of all, a pas de deux to climax the occasion. This is exactly the kind of dance that Marie would like to do, too, one day, and she and the prince rejoice in the splendid tenderness of the royal couple.” (Balanchine’s Complete Stories of the Great Ballets p.389-90)

Depending on the age and experience of my students, we may also do improvisations or learn choreography for the Mother Ginger/Polichinelles/Candy Canes, Spanish Hot Chocolate, Arabian Coffee, Chinese Tea, Russian Trepak, Mirlitons/Marzipan, and Waltz of the Flowers celebratory second act divertissements. This can be a fun place to introduce the interplay between classical and folk dance styles in the development of staged classical ballets.

As Eliza Gaynor Minden teaches: “The court of King Louis XIV in France was not the sole source of ballet’s character and form. Story ballets, in particular, have often borrowed from folk-dancing traditions. Folk-dancing steps and styles enrich the drama and add to the authenticity of such story ballets as Don Quixote, Raymonda, and Paquita. Elements of folk dancing appear frequently in divertissements–the stylized finger-pointing of the Chinese variation in The Nutcracker or the squat thrusts often seen in Russian variations.” (The Ballet Companion p.223)

Me as a Mirliton with West Hawai’i Dance Theatre

6. Scene Six: Marie’s Return Home

“All of the candies then come back in as the Sugarplum Fairy and her cavalier bid the young couple farewell. Marie and her prince step into a royal sleigh drawn by reindeer and before our very eyes the sleigh rises right into the sky and away.”  (Balanchine’s Complete Stories of the Great Ballets)

“It is all so perfect…but even the most beautiful dream must end. The next morning Marie wakes up with her wooden nutcracker beside her.” (A Child’s Introduction to Ballet p.48)

If you’re interested in using the music for a full ballet or dance class, I have arranged tracks from the ballet in my “Nutcracker” Ballet Class playlist.

Imagery for Teaching

A few favorite texts to share pictures as part of our storytelling are the Nutcracker Ballet Coloring Book by Brenda Sneathen Mattox, A Child’s Introduction to Ballet by Laura Lee, and How to… Ballet by Jane Hakett.

Would love to see an updated coloring book and children’s books with more inclusive images (race, disability, body size diversity representation). I am also on the lookout for a German language children’s book about the Nutcracker 🙂

Other Ballet Adaptations

As Eliza Gaynor Minden points out, “There are as many versions of The Nutcracker as there are companies. This holiday classic tells the story of a young girl, her magical Christmas present, and her incredible journey to the Kingdom of the Sweets. For millions of children, it is their introduction to ballet.” (The Ballet Companion p.273) While there are similarities between Nutcracker productions, there are also myriad diverse perspectives on the tale.

Each culture impacts their interpretation, from language to costume to choreography. Names of characters and dances vary: “In the original Nutcracker story the little girl is called Marie. Sometimes she goes by the Russian name Masha or the more American-sounding Clara.” (A Child’s Introduction to Ballet p.47)

Balanchine and Mason describe a few adaptations of the original, including the 1968 Nureyev production by the Royal Swedish Ballet, and the 1976 Barishnikov production by American Ballet Theatre.

Of Nureyev’s choreography, Balanchine and Mason comment: “Clara is a girl of an age between child and woman, and consequently her dreams are both childish and tinged with an erotic element. Nureyev has omitted the visit to the Kingdom of Sweets and has built the divertissement entirely on dreams in which Claras’ family and Drosselmeyer appear in different shapes. The same dancer is seen as Drosselmeyer, the Rat King, and the Prince. Clara is herself all through the ballet, dancing the usual Sugarplum Fairy pas de deux with the Prince as though it were a dream of herself as a princess.” (Balanchine’s Complete Stories of the Great Ballets p.391)

With regard to Barishnikov’s choreography, Balanchine and Mason detail his innovations: “The Nutcracker is not child’s play, though it is about a young girl growing up. It is different from other productions of this ballet in its focus on the two men who are central to the life of young Clara–Drosselmeyer, her godfather in real life, and the Nutcracker-Prince, the dream figure who is created by Drosselmeyer’s magic. Here the child Clara is on the point of growing up. Aided by her godfather, a dream of love materializes only to cause later doubts. This psychological drama is set within the conventional fram of The Nutcracker: the names are the same but the action of the ballet varies dramatically.” (Balanchine’s Complete Stories of the Great Ballets p.391)

Critic of the Washington Star, Anne Marie Welsh: “Baryshnikov’s most significant and stunning departure from productions which have become standard is to turn the second act pas de deux into a pas de trois for Clara, the Prince and Drosselmeyer. The melody is one of Tchaikovsky’s simplest and most haunting–just the G major scale played top to bottom–and the new dance for three is perfectly attuned to its musical impulse.” (Balanchine’s Complete Stories of the Great Ballets p.393)

UNCSA: My alma mater UNCSA released this abbreviated “The Nutcracker” Original Film last year, and I think watching it might become an annual tradition for me! (32 minutes)

I am intrigued by the Septime Webre-directed productions at Ballet Hawai’i & HK Ballet.  

Mark Morris’ “The Hard Nut,” which Eliza Gaynor Minden writes about: “Mark Morris’s contemporary choreography shows balletic origins and employs formal groupings while at the same time breaking away from a strict ballet vocabulary and often–in his own company–a traditional ballet body type. L’Allegro il Penseroso ed il Moderato is one of his best-known works. Morris can be hilariously satirical and campy; his spoof of The Nutcracker, The Hard Nut, provides comic relief at the holidays.” (The Ballet Companion p. 284)

Disney’s “The Nutcracker and the Four Realms:” I avoided seeing this film when it came out, despite curiosity about Misty Copeland’s performance, because I was worried that I would be disappointed that it isn’t the full-length ballet. Finally watched it this month as part of my research for this blog and due to a student’s recent recommendation. Don’t want to spoil it for anyone, but it is more of a sequel than a reproduction, and though I thought some moments fell flat, some sequences were magical and the dancing and effects were lovely. Interesting use of the original story and one or two surprises.

Questions for Reflection

  • What versions of “The Nutcracker” have you seen? Which is your favorite?
  • Have you performed in “The Nutcracker” ballet or other wintertime productions?
  • What holiday traditions will you enjoy this year?
  • What music fills you with the spirit of the season?

Blythe Stephens, MFA
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