THE NUTCRACKER BALLET
THE NUTCRACKER BALLET
Enjoy the Nutcracker ballet performances in Bolshoi Theatre, Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Moscow Music Theatre and Kremlin Palace
The original production of The Nutcracker, 1892
The libretto was criticized for being “lopsided” and for not being faithful to the Hoffmann tale. Much of the criticism focused on the featuring of children so prominently in the ballet, and many bemoaned the fact that the ballerina did not dance until the Grand Pas de Deux near the end of the second act (which did not occur until nearly midnight during the program). Some found the transition between the mundane world of the first scene and the fantasy world of the second act too abrupt. Reception was better for Tchaikovsky’s score. Some critics called it “astonishingly rich in detailed inspiration” and “from beginning to end, beautiful, melodious, original, and characteristic.” But even this was not unanimous as some critics found the party scene “ponderous” and the Grand Pas de Deux “insipid.”
Below is a synopsis based on the original 1892 libretto by Marius Petipa. The story varies from production to production, though most follow the basic outline. The names of the characters also vary. In the original E.T.A. Hoffmann story, the young heroine is called Marie Stahlbaum and Clara (Klärchen) is her doll’s name. In the adaptation by Dumas on which Petipa based his libretto, her name is Marie Silberhaus. In still other productions, such as Baryshnikov’s, Clara is Clara Stahlbaum rather than Clara Silberhaus.
Scene 1: The Stahlbaum Home
It is Christmas Eve. Family and friends have gathered in the parlor to decorate the beautiful Christmas tree in preparation for the party. Once the tree is finished, the children are sent for. They stand in awe of the tree sparkling with candles and decorations.
The party begins. A march is played. Presents are given out to the children. Suddenly, as the owl-topped grandmother clock strikes eight, a mysterious figure enters the room. It is Drosselmeyer, a local councilman, magician, and Clara’s godfather. He is also a talented toymaker who has brought with him gifts for the children, including four lifelike dolls who dance to the delight of all. He then has them put away for safekeeping.
Clara and Fritz are sad to see the dolls being taken away, but Drosselmeyer has yet another toy for them: a wooden nutcracker carved in the shape of a little man, used for cracking nuts. The other children ignore it, but Clara immediately takes a liking to it. Fritz, however, accidentally breaks it. Clara is heartbroken.
During the night, after everyone else has gone to bed, Clara returns to the parlor to check on her beloved nutcracker. As she reaches the little bed, the clock strikes midnight and she looks up to see Drosselmeyer perched atop it. Suddenly, mice begin to fill the room and the Christmas tree begins to grow to dizzying heights. The nutcracker also grows to life size. Clara finds herself in the midst of a battle between an army of gingerbread soldiers and the mice, led by their king. They begin to eat the soldiers.
The nutcracker appears to lead the soldiers, who are joined by tin ones and dolls who serve as doctors to carry away the wounded. As the Mouse King advances on the still-wounded nutcracker, Clara throws her slipper at him, distracting him long enough for the nutcracker to stab him.
Scene 2: A Pine Forest
The mice retreat and the nutcracker is transformed into a handsome Prince. He leads Clara through the moonlit night to a pine forest in which the snowflakes dance around them, beckoning them on to his kingdom as the first act ends.
Scene 1: The Land of Sweets
Clara and the Prince travel to the beautiful Land of Sweets, ruled by the Sugar Plum Fairy in his place until his return. He recounts for her how he had been saved from the Mouse King by Clara and had been transformed back into his own self.
In honor of the young heroine, a celebration of sweets from around the world is produced: chocolate from Spain, coffee from Arabia, tea from China, and candy canes from Russia all dance for their amusement; Danish shepherdesses perform on their flutes; Mother Ginger has her children, the Polichinelles, emerge from under her enormous hoop skirt to dance; a string of beautiful flowers perform a waltz. To conclude the night, the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier perform a dance.
A final waltz is performed by all the sweets, after which the Sugar Plum Fairy ushers Clara and the Prince down from their throne. He bows to her, she kisses Clara goodbye, and leads them to a reindeer drawn sleigh. It takes off as they wave goodbye to all the subjects who wave back.
In the original libretto, the ballet’s apotheosis “represents a large beehive with flying bees, closely guarding their riches”. Just like Swan Lake, there have been various alternative endings created in productions subsequent to the original.
- In 2009, Pulitzer Prize-winning dance critic Sarah Kaufman wrote a series of articles for The Washington Post criticizing the primacy of The Nutcracker in the American repertory for stunting the creative evolution of ballet in the United States:
“That warm and welcoming veneer of domestic bliss in The Nutcracker gives the appearance that all is just plummy in the ballet world. But ballet is beset by serious ailments that threaten its future in this country… companies are so cautious in their programming that they have effectively reduced an art form to a rotation of over-roasted chestnuts that no one can justifiably croon about… The tyranny of The Nutcracker is emblematic of how dull and risk-averse American ballet has become. There were moments throughout the 20th century when ballet was brave. When it threw bold punches at its own conventions. First among these was the Ballets Russes period, when ballet – ballet – lassoed the avant-garde art movement and, with works such as Michel Fokine’s fashionably sexy Scheherazade (1910) and Léonide Massine’s Cubist-inspired Parade (1917), made world capitals sit up and take notice. Afraid of scandal? Not these free-thinkers; Vaslav Nijinsky’s rough-hewn, aggressive Rite of Spring famously put Paris in an uproar in 1913… Where are this century’s provocations? Has ballet become so entwined with its “Nutcracker” image, so fearfully wedded to unthreatening offerings, that it has forgotten how eye-opening and ultimately nourishing creative destruction can be?”— Sarah Kaufman, dance critic for The Washington Post
- In 2010, Alastair Macaulay, dance critic for The New York Times (who had previously taken Sarah Kaufman to task for her criticism of The Nutcracker) began The Nutcracker Chronicles, a series of blog articles documenting his travels across the United States to see different productions of the ballet.
“ACT I of “The Nutcracker” ends with snow falling and snowflakes dancing. Yet The Nutcracker is now seasonal entertainment even in parts of America where snow seldom falls: Hawaii, the California coast, Florida. Over the last 70 years this ballet – conceived in the Old World – has become an American institution. Its amalgam of children, parents, toys, a Christmas tree, snow, sweets and Tchaikovsky’s astounding score is integral to the season of good will that runs from Thanksgiving to New Year… I am a European who lives in America, and I never saw any Nutcracker until I was 21. Since then I’ve seen it many times. 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. So this year I’m running a Nutcracker marathon: taking in as many different American productions as I can reasonably manage in November and December, from coast to coast (more than 20, if all goes well). America is a country I’m still discovering; let The Nutcracker be part of my research.”— Alastair Macauley, dance critic for The New York Times