‘The Nutcracker’: A Holiday Tradition

by | Dec 18, 2013 | Dance

By Diane Claytor

NutPinkClaraThere’s probably no one reading this that hasn’t seen The Nutcracker performed at least once during a Christmas holiday season. I remember my mom taking me to see it when I was a little girl growing up in Chicago, just as I took my daughter when she was young.  From mid-October through late December you can’t open a newspaper or website entertainment section without seeing an ad for The Nutcracker.  This ballet, which made its debut in 1892, has become as synonymous with the holiday season as twinkling lights and Santa Claus. Anyone who’s ever taken a ballet class has danced it; it is performed world-wide by just about every professional dance company and every ballet school. In fact, when I googled Bay Area Nutcracker performances, a list of 22 appeared, everything from the world renowned San Francisco Ballet to Moscow Ballet’s Great Russian Nutcracker (in San Jose) to the Jewish Nutcracker (at San Francisco’s Children’s Creativity Center) to Nutcracker Pinata (in San Leandro). There was even a Dance Along Nutcracker in San Francisco. And this list did not include any ballet studios or schools.

It all began in 1816 when E. T. A. Hoffmann, author of fantasy and horror stories, wrote a novella, The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. It was a dark story, written for adults, about a girl named Marie who gets a nutcracker as a Christmas present. The toys come to life and battle the evil mouse king. The nutcracker protects Marie and they eventually get married.

French author Alexandre Dumas, père, adapted Hoffmann’s story in 1844, renaming it The Nutcracker and making it more optimistic and suitable for children. He removed much of the violence from the original story but kept the basic themes of good vs. evil and the power of a child’s imagination.


From the original 1892 production of ‘The Nutcracker’.

Marius Petipa, chief ballet master of the Russian Imperial Ballet, liked this new story and in 1891 decided to make it into a ballet. He commissioned Peter Tchaikovsky to compose the music while having Lev Ivanov, Petipa’s assistant, help create the choreography. In 1892, this version of The Nutcracker made its debut in Russia.

The Nutcracker is one of Tchaikovsky’s most popular compositions. The music belongs to the Romantic Period and contains some of his most memorable melodies, several of which are frequently used in television and film. (They are often heard in TV commercials shown during the Christmas season.) The Trepak, or Russian dance, is one of the most recognizable pieces in the ballet, along with the famous Waltz of the Flowers and March, as well as the ubiquitous Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.

The ballet’s first performance outside Russia was in 1934 in England. And it was on Christmas Eve, 1944, that the audience at San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House experienced the American premiere of The Nutcracker. An instant sensation, the ballet launched a national holiday tradition.

It’s been said that Russian born dancer and choreographer George Balanchine is the one who really turned The Nutcracker into the world famous production that it is today. He choreographed his own version, George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker™ which premiered in 1954 in New York City. This is the version that is seen and enjoyed around the world today.

New York City Ballet performing the Snow Scene from George Balanchine's 'The Nutcracker'.

New York City Ballet performing the Snow Scene from George Balanchine’s ‘The Nutcracker’.

It’s hard to believe that what many consider to be the most famous ballet in the world was not considered a success when it premiered in St. Petersburg, Russia more than 120 years ago. According to Wikipedia.com, one audience member at the time described the choreography of the battle scene as confusing: “One cannot understand anything. Disorderly pushing about from corner to corner and running backwards and forwards – quite amateurish;” the libretto was criticized for being “lopsided”; and there apparently was considerable ridicule focused on featuring actual children (rather than adults) so prominently in the ballet.

With every professional ballet company and just about every ballet school performing The Nutcracker, it seems as if anyone that has ever taken a ballet class has performed in The Nutcracker.

When I asked Lauren Jonas, Diablo Ballet’s Co-Founder and Artistic Director, how many times she’s danced in The Nutcracker, she asked if I meant from the time she was 6 years old and danced as a Soldier? “Hundreds and hundreds of times,” she said.

Every well known ballet dancer seems to have danced in The Nutcracker: George Balanchine first danced as the prince when he was only 15 years old; Maria Tallchief was the Sugar Plum Fairy in 1954; Rudolf Nureyev danced as the Nutcracker Prince in 1958 and Mikhail Baryshnikov danced the part in 1976; Margot Fonteyn, Gelsey Kirkland, and Alexander Minz are just a few other famous names that have appeared in The Nutcracker.

NutPasClaraEven Tony LaRussa, former manager of the Oakland A’s and St. Louis Cardinals, has performed in The Nutcracker. For many years, a popular feature of the Oakland Ballet’s production was “Celebrity Night at the Nutcracker.” Oakland A’s Dave Stewart, Mark McGwire, retired Warrior’s player Nate Thurmond and Bay Area newscaster Doug Murphy have all performed in The Nutcracker. A newspaper review of one of LaRussa’s performances stated, “the former A’s manager matches the famous score, looking every bit the part of the toy soldier heading for battle with the Rat King and his legions.”

During the 1977 Christmas season, CBS brought Baryshnikov’s highly acclaimed American Ballet Theatre production of The Nutcracker to TV, and it continues to be the most popular and frequently shown television production of this work in the U.S.

According to Wikipedia.com, major American ballet companies generate approximately 40 percent of their annual ticket revenues from performances of The Nutcracker. Diablo Ballet’s Justin VanWeest who, this year, is performing in two different Nutcracker productions, noted that the popularity of this ballet also helps the dancers. He said The Nutcracker is the “main artery for keeping dance alive,” stating that people who may not attend other dance performances throughout the year will come see The Nutcracker as part of their holiday tradition. “Of course, the beautiful music, lavish sets and costumes all help.”

In 2010, Alastair Macaulay, dance critic for “The New York Times”, wrote, “The importance of this ballet to America has become a phenomenon that surely says as much about this country as it does about this work of art.”

sugar-plum-fairyThe Nutcracker is performed during the Christmas season by ballet companies all over the world. From sumptuous sets and costumes of internationally known companies to small dance studios in any community, the story of a wooden doll that came to life is an endearing holiday favorite.

In case you’ve never had the pleasure of seeing The Nutcracker, here, from nutcrackerballet.net, is the story:

The Party Scene
It is Christmas Eve at the Stahlbaum house — A large and grand house with the most beautiful tree imaginable.  The Stahlbaums are hosting their annual Christmas party, welcoming the arrival of their family and friends.  The children, Clara (Maria) and Fritz, are dancing and playing as they welcome their friends too.

The party grows festive with music and dance as godfather Drosselmeyer arrives.  He is a skilled clock and toy maker and always full of surprises. Drosselmeyer draws everyone’s attention as he presents two life-size dolls.  They are the delight of the party, each taking a turn to dance.

The children begin to open gifts when Drosselmeyer presents his to Clara and Fritz.  Although his gift to Fritz is quite nice, he gives Clara a beautiful Nutcracker that  becomes the hit of the party.  Fritz becomes jealous and, having a bit more spunk than a boy should have, grabs the nutcracker from Clara and promptly breaks it.  Clara is heartbroken, looking on as Drosselmeyer quickly repairs the Nutcracker with a handkerchief he magically draws from the air.

As the evening grows late, the guests depart and the family retires for the evening.  Clara, worried about her beloved Nutcracker, sneaks back to the tree to check on him, falling asleep with him in her arms.

The Fight Scene
As the clock strikes midnight strange things begin to happen.  Clara begins shrinking as her beautiful Christmas tree grows high above her.  The toys around the tree come to life while the room fills with an army of mice, led by the fierce Mouse King.  As the Nutcracker awakens, he leads his army of toy soldiers into battle with the mice.  The Mouse King corners the Nutcracker and battles him one-on-one.  The Nutcracker seems to be no match for the Mouse King.NutHimself

The Nutcracker and his army can go on no longer and are captured by the mice and their King.  Clara makes a final daring charge throwing her slipper at the Mouse King, hitting him square on the head.  The Mouse King drops to the floor and the mice run away, carrying off their leader’s lifeless body.

The Land of Snow
The Nutcracker turns into a Prince and takes Clara on a journey to the Land of Snow, an enchanted forest wonderland where they are welcomed by dancing snowflakes.

The Land of Sweets
The Prince escorts Clara to the Land of Sweets where they are greeted by the Sugar Plum Fairy.  The Prince tells her about their daring battle with the army of mice and she rewards them with a celebration of dances.
As a finale, the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Cavalier dance a beautiful Pas De Deux.

The Dream Ends
Clara awakens from her dream and finds herself by her Christmas tree with her beloved Nutcracker.

Diane Claytor, a Chicago native, has spent most of her adult life living in the East Bay and working for several different non-profit organizations. Although admittedly not a dance aficionado, she enjoys all types of music and is probably happiest when she’s plugged into her mp3 player listening to whatever the mood dictates.