The Nutcracker ballet is the last of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s three ballets (Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty and Nutcracker.) The story of The Nutcracker is loosely based on the E.T.A. Hoffmann fantasy story The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, about a girl who befriends a nutcracker that comes to life on Christmas Eve and wages a battle against the evil Mouse King. Hoffmann’s story is darker than the version that reached the stage. The Imperial Russian Ballet choreographer Marius Petipa chose to follow a light adaptation of the story written by Alexandre Dumas Père.
Tchaikovsky accepted the commission for The Nutcracker from Director of Moscow’s Imperial Theatres, Ivan Vsevolozhsky, in February 1891, continuing his efforts while on an American tour later that year for the opening of Carnegie Hall. When in Paris on his way back home, he discovered a new instrument, the celesta, with a clear, bell-like tone perfectly fitted to The Nutcracker’s fairy-tale ambience. In the celesta’s 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.
While composing the music for the Christmas story, Tchaikovsky argued with a friend who wagered that the composer could not write a melody based on the notes of the octave in sequence. Tchaikovsky asked if it mattered whether the notes were in ascending or descending order and was assured it did not. This resulted in the Grand Adage from the Grand Pas de Deux of Act Two where Clara dances with the Nutcracker Prince. Petipa is also said to have given Tchaikovsky extremely detailed instructions for the composition of each number of the ballet, down to the tempo and number of bars.
Selections from The Nutcracker were first performed as an orchestral suite in March 1892. The ballet debuted in December of that year at St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre on a double bill with Tchaikovsky’s one-act opera, Iolanta. 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.”
Yet responsibility for the failure was not wholly the composer’s fault. Petipa had fallen ill, and the choreography was devised by his less-inspired assistant, Lev Ivanov, Second Balletmaster to the St. Petersburg Imperial Theatres. Additionally, the scenery and costumes were panned as tasteless, and the performance of the ballerina who danced the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy was widely criticized. The newspapers reviled Tchaikovsky, and he did not live to see the piece succeed.
Much of the criticism of the original production focused on featuring children so prominently in the ballet. In 1919, choreographer Alexander Gorsky, staged a production which eliminated the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier and gave their dances to Clara and the Nutcracker Prince, who were played by adults instead of children. This was the first production to do so. In 1934, choreographer Vasili Vainonen staged a version of the work that addressed many of the criticisms of the original 1892 production by casting adult dancers in the roles of Clara and the Prince, as Gorsky had. The Vainonen version influenced several later productions.
Despite the failure of its initial performance, The Nutcracker has become the most frequently performed of all ballets and has served as an introduction to classical music for many young people. The complete Nutcracker has enjoyed enormous popularity since the late 1960s and is now performed by countless ballet companies during the Christmas season. Major ballet companies generate approximately 40% of their annual ticket revenues from performances of The Nutcracker.
One of the most famous is Balanchine’s Nutcracker, premiering on February 2, 1954, at City Center, New York, in the early days of the creation of the New York City Ballet (NYCB). Lincoln Kiersten, co-founder of NYCB, met with Balanchine to say he had pulled together enough money for him to create a new full-length ballet. Balanchine surprised him by saying he wanted to create Nutcracker. Balanchine must have had the foresight to know that NYCB could perform Nutcracker every December for huge annual revenues. The ballet has been staged in New York every year since 1954 and become an American tradition. The first of Balanchine’s five full-length ballets, this was the Nutcracker that launched the hundreds of Nutcracker ballets that now dominate Decembers around the world.
We are glad that The Nutcracker continues to inspire and attract audiences in Victoria to the Royal Theatre annually. We hope that you enjoy this year’s free, digital production of The Nutcracker by Ballet Memphis – our gift to the community in partnership with the Royal and McPherson Theatre Society.