… and how a centuries old fairy tale is such a significant part of the dance community
Ballet companies around the world are gearing up for their performances of The Nutcracker this holiday season. The ballet is a staple of Christmas time entertainment for many people – and for the dance world, it’s one of the biggest performances of the year. But why do we place so much emphasis on this performance and more importantly, how did a centuries old tale stay so relevant all this time?
It Wasn’t Always Rainbows and Butterflies
Or should we say, it wasn’t always snowflakes and sugar plum fairies. The Nutcracker story we all know and love today was adapted from a tale created in 1816 by ETA Hoffman. It’s a story we probably wouldn’t read our children today because, well, it’s a bit grim! The story is nightmarish compared to the adapted version we are familiar with. Though the main themes of Christmas Eve, nutcrackers, toy soldiers, and mice are still found in the adaptation – the 1844 version by Alexandre Dumas is much tamer and sweeter. This sugary, dreamy, version is what was eventually adapted into the ballet.
The First Performance
In 1891, the director of The Russian Imperial Theatre commissioned a ballet based on the fairy tale with Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky as the composer. Tchaikovsky was coming off success from his recent ballet Sleeping Beauty, but The Nutcracker wasn’t something he could add to his list of accomplishments just yet. The first performance, which was held a week before Christmas in 1892, was held as a double premier with his last opera, Iolanta at the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia. Unfortunately, the performance was not met with kind reviews. Patrons quickly criticized almost everything about the performance – form the plot, to the dancers – the only thing that everyone could agree on was that the score was fantastic.
Images from the first performance of The Nutcracker, 1892 (source: afterpetipa.com)
A Century of Updates
Just as with the original fairy tale, some tweaks were made to the ballet in an attempt to make it more successful. In a 1919 version, choreographer Alexander Gorsky 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. In 1934, choreographer Vasili Vainonen followed suit and casted adult dancers for the roles of Clara and the Prince. That same year, the first production outside of Russia was held in England. Ten years later, the San Francisco Ballet performed The Nutcracker on December 24th and saw enormous success – so much that the company has performed it every Christmas Eve since! But it wasn’t until 1954 when the New York City Ballet gave its first performance, that elevated the work into an annual Christmas classic.
Maria Tallchief as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Nicholas Magallanes as her cavalier The Nutcracker, NYC (1954).
The Importance of The Nutcracker Today
So, why is this old tale still so important to the dance community today? Well, the easiest answer: it’s simply magical. The Sugar Plum Fairy is the epitome of a ballerina. It’s hard to not be enchanted by the grace, poise, and strength during her dance. The Nutcracker is also so influential as it’s many young dancers’ first professional performance and gives them the opportunity to work alongside brilliant adult dancers. Lastly, The Nutcracker is an incredible chance to get in front of a new audience. With its legacy of being filled with the wonders of the season – with snowflakes, magic, toys, and Christmas trees – it appeals to families far and wide and often serves as a first encounter with the brilliant art of dance.