The original story of the Nutcracker, by E.T.A Hoffmann, was a typical fairy tale of the 1800s. It was dark and rather unhappy with the heroine, Clara, ending up living in the doll world with her ugly nutcracker prince.
Legend has it that in 1833, Alexander Dumas who also wrote “The Three Musketeers” and “The Count of Monte Crisco,” created the modern, child-friendly version at a holiday party where his daughter was a guest. The children tied a sleeping Dumas to a chair and demanded a story. The imaginative Dumas improvised the story that is now everyone’s favorite Christmas time tale. He later published “L’histoire d’un casse noisette.”
In the mid-1800s, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, composer, and Marius Petipa, chief ballet master of the Russian Imperial Theater, were commissioned together to create a ballet based on the Dumas version of the story of a nutcracker prince dueling a 7-headed mouse king in defense of the child-damsel, Clara.
A technical note here is that the ballet was actually created before the music was. Tchaikovsky had to literally compose music to the choreographic movements of Petipa’s creation. The most interesting feature of this way of putting a ballet together is that each dance actually starts before the music does. It is like a clarinetist taking a long, full breath before a note of music comes out of the instrument. The dancer not only breaths but actually starts the movement of the first step before the music plays. The precision of the composer is what makes it all work together so well. They were both genius in their fields with Tchaikovsky’s beautiful music matching Petipa’s intricate and difficult choreography perfectly. The challenge for the dancer is to not be late! The challenge for the orchestra is to not be early or late which is the greater challenge! For those of us “in the know,” it makes watching the exactitude of the performance that much more enjoyable. I am often awe-struck as an observer.
The 1844 performance of this work was met with mixed reviews. The Czar was delighted but critics and audience members found much to criticize and it was a failure. With the Russian Revolution in 1905, most of the dancers in the Maryinsky Theater fled Russia and the original nutcracker prince committed suicide. The ballet and the dancers were forgotten.
The Russian dancers took their Russian high culture with them across Europe and “The Nutcracker” showed up here and there over the years, in London in 1934 and in San Francisco in 1944. But it was in 1940 that Disney used the entire score in “Fantasia” causing the music to become familiar to the public in the United States the same way television commercial theme music does.
In 1954, George Balanchine brought the ballet he learned as a young boy in the Maryinsky Theater to life with his New York City Ballet Company. He was true to the Dumas story and to his Russian technical training—which, by the way—is very very difficult. However, Balanchine had revolutionary ideas that fired up the imagination, one being that there should be equal numbers of dancers of color to the number of white dancers on stage. This is tough to reconcile even today as the number of white dancers way out-weighs the number of dancers of color. But, what a statement for equality on the part of Balanchine!
“The Nutcracker” ballet is a must for most dance companies. It is a popular audience draw that is needed to pay the bills. As with the 1892 debut, there is drama and controversy still in the ballet’s components and often with the dancers themselves. But when you are sitting in the theater and the curtain goes up and strains of Tchaikovsky’s beautiful music bursts through the air, or the overture starts to play for Mikhail Baryshnikov’s creative televised version, none of that matters. The story, beauty, joy, sparkling costuming and spectacular dancing of this ballet takes over to provide an evening of feel-good splendor one takes with them for days and even weeks afterward.
Don’t miss a chance to see “The Nutcracker” during the holiday season wherever you are. There are performances all over the country. The Eugene Ballet production is particularly delightful. Toni Pimble’s vision and wonderful choreography are uniquely excellent. They are giving performances at the Hult Center for the Performing Arts in Eugene on December 16, 17 and 18.
On December 17, in Cleveland, Moscow Ballet will present 2 performances of the “Great Russian Nutcracker” at the Public Music Hall. It doesn’t get better than Russians dancing this particular ballet. Moscow Ballet is accompanied by orchestras through the Musical Wunderkind Program.
Check your local listings for this delightful, holiday ballet and don’t forget to take the kids! There are battle scenes for the boys with the evil mouse king and his army and the hero nutcracker prince and his soldiers. Mother Ginger may appear with all of her ‘ginger snaps’ to engage the little ones. The iconic dances in the land of sweets are popular with everyone. Every girl dreams of becoming Clara. Adults will love every minute, too. There is something for all ages in this charming ballet.