The Nutcracker is one of the most well-known ballets in the world. It’s performed every holiday season by professional companies and schools everywhere. For many people, The Nutcracker provided their first exposure to the arts. This beloved ballet is a fan favorite for audiences of all ages.
The Story of The Nutcracker
The basis for the ballet originated with the German writer E.T.A. Hoffman’s tale called “Nutcracker and Mouse King.” It was a tale of a girl named Marie Stahlbaum who feels constrained by the traditions of her family and social class. Her godfather, Drosselmeier, brings presents to Marie and the other children at a Christmas party to “reignite the imagination” in Marie’s strict life. She is given a nutcracker, which breaks.
Later that night, Marie comes to check on her broken nutcracker and is greeted by her toy having grown to life-size, battling with a mouse king and his armies. From there, when her nutcracker beats the mouse king, he takes Marie to a world of imagination and wonder. In the end, she chooses to stay there rather than return home.
This story was adapted by the French author Alexandre Dumas, who also wrote The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo. Dumas changed the title to “The Nutcracker of Nuremberg” and Marie’s name to Clara. He embellished the tale to include the dancing toys of the first act and performing sweets of the second act. Most importantly, he removed Clara’s rigid lifestyle constraints and had her and her nutcracker return home at the end of the story. Dumas’s tale is the one we know in the ballet today.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was commissioned to write the score for this ballet by the director of Moscow’s Imperial Theatres. While in the process of composing the score, Tchaikovsky discovered a newly invented instrument called the celesta. The celesta looks like a piano, but uses metal bars instead of piano strings. These metal bars make it sound like a music box. Tchaikovsky immediately knew this instrument had to be incorporated into his ballet about a magical land. This instrument is what you hear in the bell-like melody of the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. (You’ll also recognize this sound in the first notes of “Hedwig’s Theme” from Harry Potter.)
Tchaikovsky had also been challenged by a friend to compose a melody based on the sequential notes in an octave. Tchaikovsky rose to the challenge, and the result is the Grand Adage from the Grand Pas de Deux danced by the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier.
The Nutcracker in Performance
The Nutcracker premiered in St. Petersburg in 1892, and it was not a success. The plan had been for the celebrated choreographer Marius Petipa to stage the ballet, but he had fallen ill and most of the job instead went to his assistant. Everything from the score to the costumes to the set to the dancing were criticized. Unfortunately, neither Tchaikovsky nor Petipa lived to see The Nutcracker succeed.
The ballet was staged in abridged and full versions occasionally throughout Russia and in a few European countries, but it was never very popular. Willam Christensen, founder of San Francisco Ballet and Ballet West, staged The Nutcracker in San Francisco in 1944. It was a success there, but The Nutcracker didn’t become a huge favorite until George Balanchine premiered his version with the New York City Ballet in 1954. Maria Tallchief, an extremely talented ballerina who was also one of Balanchine’s muses and love interests, played the Sugar Plum Fairy. Her prominent role was one of the reasons The Nutcracker shot to fame.
The Nutcracker Today
Today, this beloved ballet is performed by most, if not all, professional ballet companies around the world. It’s also very frequently performed by ballet schools and studios in smaller-scale versions. The revenue in ticket sales from The Nutcracker pays for ballet companies’ bills—in some cases, the number of tickets sold for The Nutcracker accounts for half of all tickets sold in a season.
Studio R Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker has been performed every holiday season since 2010. The sets, costumes, and cast have all evolved and grown into one of the best productions of The Nutcracker in Arizona. Our production has been condensed into a one-hour masterpiece, which makes for the perfect length of time for even the youngest viewers. We are incredibly proud of our production of The Nutcracker. Purchase your tickets to see it this Thanksgiving weekend here.