The Nutcracker: A History

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The Nutcracker is the Shmoo of ballets. If you’re under 50, you’ll probably have to look up cartoonist Al Capp’s character from ‘Lil Abner. The Shmoo was a feature of that Depression-era comic strip, an amiable creature that lived to serve—if you ate one, it tasted like chicken, but it also produced milk, eggs, and butter, its pelt made perfect boot leather or house timber (depending on how thick it was cut), and its whiskers were perfect toothpicks.  A Shmoo was anything you needed it to be, and over its lifetime, Nutcracker has also served multiple purposes.

PNB principal dancer Noelani Pantastico as Dewdrop in George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker®. Photo by Angela Sterling.
PNB principal dancer Noelani Pantastico as Dewdrop in George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker®. Photo by Angela Sterling.

Originally, though, Nutcracker was just another in a series of works in the classical tradition that Marius Petipa spent his career developing. Usually structured like an opera, with a division between the recitative that told a story and the arias that embroidered on virtuosic techniques, they gave choreographers of the day a chance to explore a variety of different elements in a series of solos and ensemble dances that might only have a tangential connection to each other. The narrative, often a kinetic retelling of a familiar story or myth, is usually introduced and resolved in the initial acts, while the final section is reserved for a collection of variations in the guise of a celebration. Although there are some notable exceptions to this formula in the classical repertory, the majority of works from this period, Nutcracker included, follow the pattern pretty faithfully.

The actual choreography was created by Lev Ivanov, one of Petipa’s assistants, but the original, highly detailed outline of the work was written by Petipa and handed to Peter Tchaikovsky as a guide for the composer. All of the actual story, the family party and the magical battle between toys and mice, is wrapped up before the intermission. What follows, as the young heroine and the Nutcracker Prince visit the Land of the Sweets and meet its ruler, the Sugar Plum Fairy, is all about the dancing. Act two included several classical variations, as well as character and ethnic dances—a typical combination of styles for this period.

ARC Dance's Nutcracker. Photo by Paul Sanders.
ARC Dance’s Nutcracker. Photo by Paul Sanders.

Ironically, considering how important Nutcracker is to most ballet companies today, it was not a particularly successful work when it first premiered in 1892. The critics felt the role for the principal ballerina wasn’t large enough, and the rest of the variations weren’t considered particularly distinguished. Nutcracker remained in the repertory of the Imperial Ballet, but it was revised or entirely rechoreographed several times. When Serge Diaghilev began to take small ensembles of dancers to western Europe as the Ballet Russe, Nutcracker was only performed in excerpts, sometimes combined with variations from other works, or inserted into an existing ballet like Swan Lake. Anna Pavlova toured extensively with excerpts as well—many audiences’ first experience of Nutcracker was in these truncated forms.

At this point, it wasn’t considered a strictly holiday ballet, but just another example of a strange and exotic dance theater form. When the full ballet was first staged in the West, reconstructed by Nicholas Sergeyev in 1934 from notation for the Vic-Wells Ballet in London, it was put in a regular rotation throughout the year—in her autobiography, Margot Fonteyn talks about performing the work in June on a tour to Oxford. The Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo toured a one-act version through the United States in the 1940s and 50s, and Willam Christensen made his own complete production for San Francisco Ballet in 1944 (without ever seeing any of the original choreography), but it was still not a Christmas staple.

PNB's George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker®. Photo by Angela Sterling.
PNB’s George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker®. Photo by Angela Sterling.

That task fell to George Balanchine. When he choreographed his version for the young New York City Ballet in 1954, he worked to reproduce the ballet he learned as a young student in St. Petersburg. Even though this production premiered in February, Balanchine and Morton Baum, who ran the City Center Theater where the company performed, recognized its potential as a holiday attraction, bringing it back the following December. Shortly after that, the work was televised live twice in the US, which helped to jumpstart what has become a virtual avalanche of snowflakes as American companies from professional to amateur present their versions of a Christmas fantasy.

With a familiar score, a child-friendly story, and a holiday setting, Nutcracker seemed custom-made as an accessible ballet. Since most teachers or choreographers had little access to the original choreography (and since it had already been revised multiple times) it was easy to create versions that were tailored to the available dancers. The structure of the work, with so many little variations, meant that no single dancer had to be able to carry the whole show. And a cast filled with children generally meant an audience filled with families.

Land of the Sweets: The Burlesque Nutcracker, a Verlaine and McCann Presents production. Photo by POC Photos.
Land of the Sweets: The Burlesque Nutcracker, a Verlaine and McCann Presents production. Photo by POC Photos.

Although most productions today replicate the German setting of the original scenario, Nutcracker has been customized multiple times, with versions set in 19th c. New York City, San Francisco, or Chicago, as well as colonial New England and Dickensian London. It’s been translated into a burlesque context several times, performed on ice, and as an aerial ballet. In Seattle, before the advent of Pacific Northwest Ballet, it was presented by a consortium of dance studios and by several semi-professional companies, and even now with PNB’s production taking up a considerable amount of local attention, it’s still being performed this month by at least five other ensembles.

A census taken in the 1990s for the International Encyclopedia of Dance estimated there were over 300 versions of Nutcracker in production in the United States. It has become over the years a major driver for many companies, providing a significant percentage of their attendance and their earned income. It attracts a wider variety of audiences than any other single work, both in terms of their experience with ballet and with their income. It is, for audiences and performers, an entry-level work. Jessika Anspach, who recently retired from Pacific Northwest Ballet, describes it as a “gateway drug” —it’s the bait that catches a significant number of young students who go on to pursue a career in ballet. Jennifer Fisher’s book, Nutcracker Nation, goes into detail about the economics of the work and profiles a sampler of productions across the country.

Even today, Nutcracker is still not a holiday ballet in most other countries, but in the United States, it’s become a lynchpin of dance communities everywhere.  Whatever your feelings about it, as you hear that familiar score in a theater, or in line at Target, if it’s December, it must be Nutcracker.

Just some of the Nutcrackers in Seattle this season:

Pacific Northwest Ballet’s George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker®, choreographed by George Balanchine © The George Balanchine Trust. PNB’s production features sets and costumes designed by children’s author and illustrator Ian Falconer (Olivia the Pig) and runs November 25 – December 28, 2016 at McCaw Hall. More information HERE.

ARC Dance’s Nutcracker Sweets show is sold out at the ARC Dance Space, but tickets are still available for their Shorewood Performing Arts Center shows on December 17th. More information HERE.

Verlaine and McCann Presents Land of the Sweets: The Burlesque Nutcracker plays Dec 9-29 at the Triple Door. More information HERE.