Every holiday season, both the young and young at heart flock to see one of the world's most famous ballets. And some, including myself, have performed in it year after year, playing a snowflake, a flower, being Clara and the Sugar Plum Fairy. Yet, I still enjoy seeing young dancers eagerly rehearsing, anxious to be a part of this iconic ballet.
But where did the story behind The Nutcracker ballet originate, and how did a little wooden novelty become one of the world's most recognizable protagonists?
The Nutcracker Ballet is based on a story called "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King" written by an 18th-century German writer, composer, and critic known as E.T.A. Hoffman (E.T.A. Hoffman being his pen-name; his actual name was Ernst Theodor Wilhelm Hoffman).
Hoffmann wrote spooky tales that trespassed the border between fantasy and reality. They were such famous stories that other composers readthem and set them to to music throughout the 19th century — for example, Jacques Offenbach's opera, The Tales of Hoffmann.
One of the episodes in The Tales of Hoffmann is based on a story called "The Sandman," in which evil inventors create a robotic girl. It was also — loosely — the basis for Leo Delibes' comic ballet Coppelia, about the misadventures of a young man who falls in love with a life-size dancing doll.
Inanimate things come to life in many of Hoffmann's stories. He was a champion of the imagination run wild. Retired University of Minnesota German professor Jack Zipes says Hoffmann was rebelling against the dominant movement of the time, the Enlightenment, and its emphasis on rational philosophy. "He believed strongly, as most of the German Romantics at that time, that the imagination was being attacked by the rise of rationalism ... throughout Europe," Zipes tells Siegel. "The only way that an artist could survive would be to totally become dedicated to another way of looking at the world, and to reclaiming nature, reclaiming innocence, reclaiming an authentic way of living."
Those familiar with The Nutcracker ballet will be familiar with the story that frames "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King"; this framing narrative involves a little girl named Marie and her brother Fritz who receive a nutcracker from their godfather, an inventor named Drosselmeyer. Fritz plays too roughly with the toy and breaks some of its teeth, but the gentle Marie bandages it and stays up late to nurse it back to health. After everyone else has fallen asleep, Marie witnesses an extraordinary sight as the house is suddenly filled with mice who threaten Marie and the nutcracker, but the nutcracker and other Christmas toys all inexplicably come to life and fight back.
This is where the story begins to differ from the ballet version. Marie watches the battle between the mice and toys until she eventually faints, and the next morning her parents explain that she must have imagined or dreamed the event. Then Drosselmeyer tells Marie a story about a princess named Pirlipat who, after a bizarre series of events, is turned into a strange creature with a wooden head and white beard by a vengeful mouse queen. Drosselmeyer explains that his own nephew was the one who eventually cured the princess, but in the process, he himself was transformed into a similarly grotesque creature, thus becoming the nutcracker.
That night, the relentless army of mice returns, and for several nights afterward Marie and the nutcracker must fight them off. Eventually the mice are vanquished. Shortly after, Marie proclaims that she will always love the nutcracker in spite of his appearance, and the nutcracker turns back into who he really was all along: Drosselmeyer's nephew, who was cursed to remain in his doll form until he found love. The two are married and depart to reign over the Doll Kingdom.
The Ballet Adaption
Of course, this all seems quite convoluted when compared with the plot of the ballet. However, Hoffman's version was streamlined by famed French writer Alexander Dumas in the 1844. Dumas called his version "The Story of a Hazlenut-cracker," and in the 19th century, Director of the Imperial Theaters Ivan Alexandrovitch Vsevolojsky came up with the idea of adapting this version into a ballet. He approached choreographer Marius Petipa and composer Peter Tchaikovsky with the idea.
Alexandre Dumas altered that original version, making it lighter and less scary. And in 1892 a team of Russians turned Dumas' version into a ballet. But something happened to Hoffmann's story in this progression from dark to light: Marie became Klara(Clara). Her flights of imagination became sweeter and more tame. And her real life family — called Silberhaus (which is German for "Silver House") in the ballet — became sweeter, too.
"What is interesting are the names, sometimes, that Hoffmann uses sometimes in 'The Nutcracker and the Mouse King,'" says German professor Jack Zipes. "The family in his story, in contrast to the ballet, is called Stahlbaum, which means 'steel tree.'" Marie, Hoffmann's protagonist, "is imprisoned within the regulations of the family, the family follows rituals in a prescribed way, and she feels somewhat constrained by this."
Then, Marie's strange and provocative godfather, Drosselmeier, appears. "It's very difficult to translate the word 'Drosselmeier,' but it's somebody who stirs things up," Zipes says. "And Drosselmeier certainly shakes things up. He brings these amazing toys that he's made, and ignites the imagination of the young people in the celebration of Christmas."
In the 1980s, the Pacific Northwest Ballet wanted to return to Hoffmann's original version. They turned to an illustrator and writer who was famous for his own dark voyages with childhood demons: Maurice Sendak, author of Where the Wild Things Are. "So when I did read it, I became very interested, because it was a very bizarre story. Is a very bizarre story, and that of course would appeal to me," Sendak told NPR in 1984. "It meant something. It had bite and muscle, the way the Grimm fairy tales do. So I thought, if we could put up on the stage in Seattle, anything approximating Hoffmann without diluting or bashing Tchaikovsky, then perhaps we would have something that was interesting." And Sendak's version of The Nutcracker — with his sets and libretto — is the only version that Jack Zipes says captures Hoffmann's original spirit.
Now, stories evolve from one author and one medium, to adapters and new media. But Zipes says that what has been lost from most productions of The Nutcracker is Hoffmann's very attitude about imagination, reality and childhood. "There is a great deal of damage done to Hoffmann's story, because at the end of his story, Marie moves off into another world, or it seems that she's going off into another world, a world of her own choosing," he says, "whereas in the ballet, it's a harmless diversion that is full of sort of dancing and merriment, but there's nothing profound in the ending of the ballet as it exists. And it's also true of Dumas' story — ends in a very fluffy, saccharine way."
Hoffmann, Zipes adds, wanted to make sure his readers knew that Marie was aware of the contrast between her life with the rule-bound Stahlbaums, and the dream world of The Nutcracker, "a world of imagination, a world of her choice, where she can also make decisions that are more in accord with her own imagination."
This essence is in almost all of Hoffmann's fairy tales, and essentially it's that we have to keep in touch with the child within us.
At Right - Photo of Stanislava Belinskaya as Clara (left), an unknown performer (center), & Vassily Stulkolin as Fritz (right) in the Imperial Ballet's original production of "The Nutcracker".Circa December, 1892.
Unknown photographer of the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg, Russian Empire.
When The Nutcracker was first performed in Russia in 1892, it was poorly received. It would go though several revisions over the coming decades, and finally be re-imaginged in 1954 by famed choreographer George Balanchine, before becoming the international hit it is today. Diaghilev's Ballets Russes presented a two act version of Swan Lake (1910) in which Nijinski danced a solo as Prince Siegfried to the music of the Sugar Plum Fairy. Ten years later, same company, same music, but this time used for the Lilac Fairy in The Sleeping Beauty. This also included the Danse Arabe and Danse Chinoise from The Nutcracker in the last act. Anna Pavlova toured the world with Snowflakes, choreographed by Ivan Clustine to music including Nutcracker's snow scene. This is seemingly the first occasion in which a pas de deux was danced to this music.
In England, the first Nutcracker was mounted by Sergeyev for the Vic-Wells Ballet, a predecessor of the Royal Ballet, in 1934. Sergeyev had left Russia after the October Revolution of 1917 and mounted this version based on Stepanov notation scores of the Maryinsky production that he had brought with him. His untraditional contribution to this version was to cast the actress Elsa Lanchester in the Arabian dance. He had seen her perform Ariel in The Tempest and decided that he must have the "Dramateek lady." Margot Fonteyn made her stage debut in this staging of The Nutcracker, April 21, 1934. She danced as a snowflake. In 1951, Sir Frederick Ashton premiered a one act version of The Nutcracker which countered critics of earlier productions who found the first act story uninteresting. He dispensed with the story altogether and made a plotless dance fantasy. When the Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo staged a one act version in New York, the prince and Marie grew up to adults who danced the grand pas de deux in Act 2. At one performance in Hollywood, future President Reagan's daughter Maureen played the role of Clara.
The first complete Nutcracker was staged in London by the Vic-Wells Ballet in 1934, based on choreographic notation by Nicholas Sergeyev. Ten years later saw the first US version by San Francisco Ballet (1944) and another ten years brought George Balanchine’s blockbusting version for NYCB (1954), now staged every year by several US ballet companies. By the 1980s, 300 separate productions were touring the US.
Sir Peter Wright's 1984 version of The Nutcracker for The Royal Ballet, still performed by the Company, stays close to Hoffmann’s original tale. It emphasises Drosselmeyer’s mission to find a young girl – Clara – who can break the curse imposed by the Mouse King on his nephew Hans Peter and thus restore him to human form. References to Nuremberg and German Christmas traditions are present in the settings, with a kingdom of marzipan featured in Act 2. Equally successful is his 1990 version for The Birmingham Royal Ballet, this one closer to the Russian tradition of having Clara double up as the Sugar Plum Fairy, but with a slight twist: it is Clara’s alter ego ballerina doll who turns into the Fairy.
Nureyev’s production for POB has a clear emphasis on symbology and the subconscious: Clara wanders down the stairs at midnight to find her family and friends turned into rats and bats while Drosselmeyer transforms into a handsome prince.
Mikhail Baryshnikov‘s 1976 popular version for ABT turns the Christmas dream into a coming-of-age tale. There is no Sugar Plum Fairy nor Prince Koklush, the focus being Clara’s encounter with the Nutcracker Prince as orchestrated by her Godfather Drosselmeyer. As the ballet ends so does Clara’s fantasy.
In the United States, the Nutcracker was originally presented as a suite of highlights comprising some of the most famous musical selections from the full-length ballet. These include the "March of the Toy Soldiers," the "Waltz of the Flowers," and the various dances representing different cultures and foods, which make up much of the ballet's second act. Led by William Christensen, The San Francisco Ballet performed the first American full length production of The Nutcracker ballet in 1944, and since then, unabridged productions have become a holiday theatre tradition. Here are a few of the most notable U.S. Nutcracker productions.
* The New York City Ballet. Perhaps the classic iconic American production of the full-length Nutcracker ballet belongs to the New York City Ballet, choreographed by the late George Ballanchine, according to the Petipa version from St. Petersburg. Complete with an enormous growing Christmas tree, falling snowflakes, and a sleigh that flies across the stage to take Carla and the Nutcracker Prince away at the end of the Second Act, this version, performed in New York's Lincoln Center, is one of the iconic American Nutcracker productions.
* The San Francisco Ballet. In addition to having bragging rights for being the first U.S. unabridged Nutcracker production, the San Francisco Ballet offers an extravagant stage setting: hundreds of thousands of dollars of scenery and handmade costumes, along with a cast of more than 175 dancers.
* The Pacific Northwest Ballet. Here's a new take on an old theme: The Nutcracker ballet production of the Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle has stage sets and costumes that take their inspiration from Maurice Sendak's popular children's books.
* Boston Ballet, The Boston Ballet's version of the Nutcracker features some twists on the traditional production. The stage setting shows Carla dreaming that she is mouse-sized. As the props get bigger, Clara seems to shrink, and she witnesses the battle between the toy soldiers and the mice from the vantage point of a mouse-sized human. A balloon whisks Clara and her prince into the second act, where they are treated to extravagant performances celebrating dance and, of course, candy, at the Palace of Sweets.
* Houston Ballet. Any production of the Nutcracker has its share of humor, what with Drossylmeyer's goofy gifts and the war between the mice and the soldiers. But the Houston Ballet kicks it up a notch, turning the normally staid introductory party scene into a series of mini comedies, and opening Act II with flying chef-angels on hand to concoct the confections.