The Nutcracker, for some, is a holiday tradition. It is the most widely performed ballet in the world, spawning many books and movies and selling out performances everywhere during the holiday season.
The Nutcracker ballet is based on the story The Nutcracker and The King of Mice written by E.T.A. Hoffman, the story of a young German girl that dreams of a nutcracker prince and a fierce battle against a mouse king with seven heads. The original story was modified quite a bit to be suitable for children, and then simplified even more to fit into a two-act ballet.
In 1891, the original story was adapted by Alexandre Dumas Père during the classical period of ballet. Choreographed by the world renowned Marius Petipa, he then commissioned Peter Tchaikovsky to compose the music, whom he had recently collaborated with on the successful ballet The Sleeping Beauty in 1890.
The first ever performance of The Nutcracker ballet was presented at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia on December 18, 1892. It was part of a double-bill with Tchaikovsky’s last opera, Iolanta. The ballet was considered a complete failure, its original performance disliked by both audiences and critics, though Tchaikovsky’s composition was, and still is, very well-recieved.
The full ballet wasn’t performed outside of Russia until 1934. In 1944, The Nutcracker made its debut in the United States, directed by William Christensen at the San Francisco Opera Ballet. Then, in 1954, another world renowned choreographer, George Balanchine, updated the classic with his production of The Nutcracker at the New York City Ballet. Balanchine’s staging was immensely more popular, and it’s this version that most of today’s performances are based on.
The plot of The Nutcracker ballet revolves around a young German girl named Clara Stahlbaum and her coming-of-age one Christmas holiday. In Hoffman’s original tale, the girl is named Marie or Maria, and Clara is actually the name of one of her dolls. In The Great Russian Ballet, she is affectionately called Masha. The story is set in Western Europe in the 1800’s, and is comprised of five scenes in two acts. The Nutcracker goes something like this:
Scene 1 (party scene): It is Christmas Eve at the home of the wealthy Hans Stalhbaum and his family, where there is a festive holiday party for family and friends. His children, Clara and Fritz, dance along with the others, until the mysterious godfather Drosselmeyer arrives bearing gifts. He entertains the group with life-size dancing dolls and presents his gifts to all the children, including a toy nutcracker for Clara. After much dancing and playing, and a tiff with little brother Fritz, Clara is off to bed and the guests are on their way home. She then sneaks back down to the Christmas tree to find her new nutcracker, and falls asleep with it in her arms.
Scene 2 (fight scene or mouse scene): Clara suddenly awakens as the Christmas tree and other surroundings grow around her and she appears to shrink to toy size. An army of life-size mice is led by a Mouse King, and The Nutcracker awakens to lead his toy soldiers into battle. Just as The Nutcracker is about to be defeated, Clara throws her shoe or slipper, hitting the Mouse King in the head and knocking him out.
Scene 3 (snow scene or the Land of Snow): The Nutcracker turns into a handsome price and takes Clara on a journey to the Land of Snow. This scene includes a long, beautiful snowflake dance sequence.
Scene 4 (Land of the Sweets): Clara and her Nutcracker Prince arrive at the Land of the Sweets and are greeted at the Marzipan Castle by the Sugar Plum Fairy. In honor of the Prince and his young heroine, a celebration of sweets from around the world is produced: chocolate from Spain, coffee from Arabia, candy canes from Russia and tea from China all dance for their entertainment, Danish shepherdesses perform on their flutes, Mother Gigogne has her children emerge from under her enormous skirt to dance, and a string of beautiful flowers perform a waltz. The Sugar Plum Fairy also dances, a coveted role serving as culmination of The Nutcracker ballet, and Clara and the Nutcracker Prince are crowned rulers of The Land of Sweets.
Scene 5 (Clara awakens): In this final scene, it is Christmas morning and Clara awakens under the tree still clutching her toy nutcracker. Was it all a dream?
The Nutcracker is a holiday classic dating over 100 years, and we’ll be watching the ballet this year performed by the Richmond Ballet to get us in the spirit.