I have discovered that The Nutcracker Ballet, more or less ingrained on my childhood Christmas, is not that big outside of the US. Jennifer Fisher, who has written a fascinating book on this phenomenon, says, “ . . . in North America at least, The Nutcracker, regular as clockwork, performed anywhere someone has ballet shoes, a Tchaikovsky CD, and a dream” (ix).
The History of Nutcrackers
The oldest surviving nutcracker is from the 3rd or 4th century B.C.E and is in a museum in Tarent, Italy. Iron-lever nutcrackers date from the 13th and 14th centuries, and by the 15th century, brass was being used. Eventually moulds were used in production. By the 16th century, artisans in England and France were carving intricate wooden nutcrackers. By the 18th and 19th centuries, likenesses of humans and animals were carved by artisans in Austria, Switzerland, and northern Italy. In early 18th century Germany, nutcracker carving was a spare-time activity of miners and they often used their carvings to lampoon figures of authority. By 1830, standing wooden nutcrackers in the forms of soldiers were being carved in Germany. In 1872, production had gone commercial. I don’t, however, think I ever knew about the nutcrackers until The Nutcracker.
I knew, of course, that The Nutcracker came from the E.T.A Hoffmann short story—nevertheless, I had never read it and didn’t realize what an eventful trip the ballet had from commissioning to the present. All productions share a few plot elements: “a tree must grow, mice have to fight, snow will fall, and candy ends up dancing” (4). Many productions end (though the original does not) with Clara leaving her fantasyland and waking up in her bed. Many people have problems with the plot (or lack thereof).
If you’ve forgotten some of the plot, read a short version here:
The Original Ballet
There isn’t enough documentation to reproduce the first production at the Maryinksy Theatre in St Petersburg, 1892; original choreography by Lev Ivanov has survived in bits and pieces. The story “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” was from 1816 and was simplified by Ivan Vsevolozhsky from a French translation. Marius Petipa was the original choreographer before his assistant had to step in. He gave Tchaikovsky a shopping list of elements he wanted in the ballet. Due to various disappointments and the death of his sister Sasha, Tchaikovsky felt unhappy while writing the ballet. Nevertheless, by the time he had finished the score, he felt satisfied with it. It’s well-documented, too, that he wrote many parts of the ballet around the celesta, a miniature piano that gives the Sugar Plum Fairy her distinctive sound. He discovered the instrument in Paris and immediately wanted to include it in the score. In the spring of 1892, he conducted a program at St Petersburg Musical Society and included the Nutcracker Suite, which was extremely popular.
The premiere took place as a double-bill with the opera Iolanthe. Reviews were mixed, but the bad ones were extreme in their vitriol. One critic called it “a ballet produced primarily with children for children.” The dancer playing the Sugar Plum Fairy, Antonietta Dell’Era, was called “corpulent” and “podgy.” The libretto in particular was panned. After 1893, the ballet disappeared until 1909. It was re-choreographed in 1919 by Alexander Gorsky and by Fedor Lupkhov in 1929, and then by the Kirov (Vasily Vaironen, 1934) and the Bolshoi (Yuri Grigorovich, 1966). Various Russian ex-pats took bits and pieces of it with them during performances in Paris in the 1920s. By the 1930s, a partial Nutcracker had been staged in Canada. In 1934, a London production was based on the notation score, so called itself more “authentic.”
A Golden Era
A 1940s-‘50s US tour by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo offered a “condensed” version of the original. The first full-length version was performed in the US by William Christensen in 1944 for the San Francisco Ballet. George Balanchine popularized it in 1954 at the New York City Ballet. Furthermore, the sequence in the 1940 film Fantasia “envisioned [it] by Disney [as] a literal fairy
tale and a romp through idealized nature” (27).
Balanchine also brought the Nutcracker to TV during Christmas 1957 and 1958 with a televised version of his choreography. He was a big fan of Nutcracker and loved the way it celebrated childhood. He felt it made him a kid again. When the stagers of the TV version asked about getting rid of the tree scene, Balanchine replied, “No, the ballet is the tree.” He emphasized the role of Drosselmeyer; he even brought in Santa and his reindeer at the end of the ballet! Balanchine’s ability to “combine the ‘high’ art of ballet with popular images comes across in his Nutcracker, which is not only full of swift, intricate classical dancing but also resonates with the joys of family life and souvenirs of childhood” (34).
Archetype & Canvas
“Evidently you can leave The Nutcracker but The Nutcracker may never leave you” (40). By the 1960s it had become a seasonal, universal offering in North America. One way to explain its perennial popularity is that it indulges in nostalgia for simpler times (smaller productions costume the cast in something that “approximates” the Victorian style), brings families together and celebrates the family. In my work on my radio drama thesis, I have realized that radio drama is the nexus of “high” and “low” art, which is evidently what Nutcracker is. “Elite but accessible, serious but fun, decorative but meaningful” (51).
One Ohio production from 1974 used Cincinnati immigrants’ German traditions. There has been a Bayou Nutcracker (Baton Rouge Ballet Theatre), a Southeast Nutcracker (Tucson Regional Ballet), a pre-World War I Canadian-set Nutcracker (1998, Winnipeg), and a 19th-century Russian Nutcracker (1995, National Ballet of Canada ). Jennifer Fisher was most impressed by the 1996 Harlem Nutcracker. In this version, Clara is portrayed as a grandmother whose life flashes before her eyes and her recently dead husband shows her, in flashback, the Harlem Renaissance. Less successful in Fisher’s view is Vigi Prakash’s bharata natyam (Indian traditional dance) version of The Nutcracker.
Diminutizing Ethnic Groups?
One of the most interesting aspects the book addressed was something that did strike me as an adolescent watching one of the countless Nutcrackers of my childhood: namely, wasn’t the Chinese dance a bit politically incorrect? And what about the Arabian dance (Edward Said’s Orientalism)? No one bats an eyelid at the Spanish (Chocolate) dance, which uses escuela bolero style. The Trepak dance is traditionally Russian or Ukrainian. Fisher is at a loss to explain the popularity of the “we’re number one” hand gesture used in the choreography of the Chinese (Tea) dance. She says it might have been inspired by a Mongolian chopstick dance, or the imitations of it in Orientalist ballets like Les Indes Galantes. The Arabian dance music is based on a Georgian lullaby and the choreography owes more to Hollywood than the actual Middle East. On the other end of the scale, San Francisco’s Dance Brigade has staged multiple outings of its Revolutionary Nutcracker Sweetie, which is a “dance-along” and involves all kinds of performers (the disabled, cross-dressers, etc).
The Psychology of the Nutcracker
What are the main, male dancing roles in The Nutcracker? The Cavalier, the Mouse King, and the Nutcracker Prince, of course. Who, you might ask, is the Cavalier? Basically, he’s the guy needed for the pas de deux with the Sugar Plum Fairy. He was so far down in the totem pole that in the original production he was called Prince Boqueluche, Prince “Whooping Cough.” In Russian productions, the Nutcracker Prince was a student dancer, so not a lot of prestige to that part, either. As for the Mouse King, he’s a bit of a rebel without a cause; his motivation has been lost in the ballet scenario (according to Hoffmann, it’s revenge). And it always puzzled me—this was before I had experience with British pantomime—that Mother Ginger was played by a man. (The Austin, TX Ballet has, since 1997, invited local celebrities to play the role of Mother Ginger, among them Lance Armstrong and Kinky Friedman.) Fisher likes to think “classical dancing transmits messages that go beyond storytelling and creation of sheer beauty” (142).
With strong role models like the Sugar Plum Fairy, who the Cavalier plays second-fiddle to, Clara is both a “little girl” and a “woman.” The Russian casting makes her an adult, presumably preparing her for romance with the Nutcracker Prince. With the casting of her as a child, however, for the plot to work, Clara feels that she has to escape the behavioral constraints of her childhood home. From what we can tell, Clara has a loving, well-off family with a mysterious (possibly creepy) godfather in Drosselmeyer, and though her brother Fritz may be a pest, he’s kept well within line. Why, then, does she dream of escaping to the Land of the Sweets with a prince? Is it all just related to the crux of the Russian casting, ie, as in traditional fairy tales, preparing her for growing up and conforming to marriage/romance stereotypes? The Hard Nut is a version which has a unisex snowflake scene; this means the iconic snowflake ballet is played by boys and girls dressed as snowflakes. And drag roles in that version can be found in unexpected places.
In any case, it brings us back to the central nexus of The Nutcracker: “is it ‘high’ art, popular spectacle, festival-like fun, hackneyed tripe, just a way to earn money, or a resonant experience?” (184). I remember my friends who were dancers in The Nutcracker took it as seriously as any show, and unlike some people, who get really sick of hearing Nutcracker music, I find the music perennially charming and the ballet more entertaining than any other ballet I’ve seen. The magic of it really appeals to the inner child, as George Balanchine recognized, and I think I empathize with Clara, who dreams of this magical world but in the end returns home to reality and a family Christmas.
I wonder why it has caught on so massively in the US and not elsewhere? In Britain, productions are much harder to find (though I did see a big tour bus recently of Russian dancers expressly touring The Nutcracker). Are North Americans just really susceptible to its saccharine charms? Or perhaps the immigrant component, the fact that it seems deeply rooted in an Old World, nullifies its appeal in Europe?
“History of Nutcrackers.”
“History of Nutcrackers.”