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Amber Jones view profile
Toronto, Canada
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by Amber Jones

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The Story of the Nutcracker

The ballet is in town! All December, ballet companies big and small all over the world perform the famous story adaptation of The Nutcracker . For many, it is a Christmas tradition to go to see The Nutcracker. But have you ever wondered about the history of this mesmerizing ballet with all its Christmas spirit and nature? Did you know that when the ballet was first performed it was an abysmal failure and took almost 100 years to gain popularity? 

The Nutcracker is a fairy tale ballet about a familys Christmas Eve celebration, loosely based on the E.T.A. Hoffmann fantasy story”The Nutcracker and the Mouse King”. The story tells of a young girl, Clara, who gets shrunk to the size of a mouse, and her beloved nutcracker, who goes to war, with other toys, against the evil Mouse King. He is later transformed into a beautiful prince and they go to the kingdom of the Sugar Plum Fairy to rule forever after. Romance and action fill the storyline. Though the original Hoffmann version of the story is darker and more troubling than the version that reached the stage, the Imperial Russian Ballet choreographer Marius Petipa chose to follow a lighter adaptation of the story written by Alexandre Dumas Père.

The first performance of the ballet dates all the way back to 1892, when it was premiered a week before Christmas in St. Petersburg, Russia with the now widely known compositions of Tchaikovsky, who composed the ballet’s score. The Nutcracker is one of the composer's most popular compositions and parts from it are frequently used in television and film. The most familiar song you might know is “The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy,” which is often played in TV commercials throughout the Christmas season.

The distinct fairy-tale ambient sound of the ballet composition is due to Tchaikovsky’s discovery of a new instrument known as the celesta. In the celestas ethereal notes, Tchaikovsky recognized the “voice” of his Sugar Plum Fairy, and he immediately wrote to his publisher, asking that the instrument be acquired for the performance.

Surprisingly to us today, when this now famous ballet had its debut, it wasn’t a success. Even Tchaikovsky himself was not a big fan. In a letter to a friend, Tchaikovsky remarked, “Apparently the opera gave pleasure, but the ballet not really; and, as a matter of fact, in spite of all the sumptuousness it did turn out to be rather boring.” He thought little of it, describing it as “infinitely worse than Sleeping Beauty.”

The failure of the ballet was due to a number of reasons. The main choreographer had fallen ill, and the choreography was instead devised by his less-inspired assistant. Additionally, the scenery and costumes were seen as tasteless, and the performance of the ballerina who danced the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy was widely criticized. Furthermore, the parts of the children were played by actual children, leading to many complaints about the dancing, accusing it of being amateurish. The newspapers negatively criticized Tchaikovsky and everyone involved in the production of the show, and unfortunately, he did not live to see its success.

It took 40 years for the ballet to have its first performance outside of Russia. It was in England, in 1934. The choreographer Vasili Vainonen addressed many of the criticisms of the original 1892 production, like using adults for the children's parts in the ballet instead of actual children. It was his version of the ballet that influenced the latter productions the most popular being George Balanchine’s. Balanchine grew up in Russia and had actually danced the role of the Prince in The Nutcracker in 1919 when he was 15 years old. Later, he moved to America and founded New York City Ballet, where he decided to choreograph his own version of The Nutcracker. It was his New York City production of The Nutcracker on February 2, 1954 with its choreography, staging and costumes, which firmly established the ballet as a Christmas tradition. It was hugely popular and has been an annual holiday tradition ever since. New York City Ballet usually presents 47 performances of the ballet annually.

This magical story has become perhaps the most popular to be performed around Christmas time. Its fun enchanting storyline is perfect to be seen with the whole family.  Famous ballerinas such as Margot Fonteyn have re-enacted this classic fairy-tale, and its music and story have mingled their way into many aspects of popular culture today.

The now well-known Christmas story has been published in many book versions including colourful children’s books. In addition, films and animations have been created based on the story, such as Disney’s Fantasia, The Spirit of Christmas, and even Barbie made a Nutcracker movie! The music from the ballet is also featured in video games, as well as children’s recordings. The ballet is now 122 years old, and it's a Christmas story and tradition that I’m sure will carry on for generations to come. 

[Image Credit: Paul Kolnik,]


Posted on December 24, 2014 in Poetry of Dance by Amber Jones

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