Everything you need to know about the Nutcracker
The Christmas season comes with many activities and traditions all over the world, from the wait for Santa Claus and his sleigh filled with presents to the elegantly decorated Christmas trees. For food lovers, Christmas means roast turkey, cookies, and warm milk. Christmas means beautiful melodies to the music lovers. To the theatre lovers, Christmas is incomplete without Christmas-themed dance performances. A dance performance that is popular around this time is the classic fairy-tale ballet “The Nutcracker”.
What Exactly is “The Nutcracker”?
The Nutcracker is a two-act ballet performance popularly performed around Christmastime. It is based on E.T.A. Hoffmann’s 1816 fairy tale about a young girl being awakened to romantic love. Although Hoffmann’s story is darker and more troubling, the version that reached the stage is a light adaptation of the story written by Alexandre Dumas.
A brief background about this ballet might help you understand why this ballet, which isn’t rooted in the nativity story, has come to be integral to the season, such that Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without it.
History of The Nutcracker Ballet
The story is centered around Marie, a little girl. In the story, Marie and her siblings are given a nutcracker by their Godfather Drosselmeyer for Christmas. At night, she discovers that the formerly inanimate Nutcracker can come alive, so alive that a battle soon ensues between The Nutcracker and a mouse king.
Marie saves the Nutcracker from being captured during the battle, allowing the Nutcracker to battle and defeat the mouse king. Marie eventually falls in love with the Nutcracker, declaring her undying love for him, and because of this, she breaks the curse on the Nutcracker. The Nutcracker eventually turns out to be a handsome Prince who finally marries Marie and makes her the Queen of his kingdom.
The original story features a bloody battle between the Mouse King’s Army and the Nutcracker, which was not very Christmas-y. As a result, the choreographer, Marius Petipa, chose to follow the watered-down version of the story. This version excludes the gory battle and the backstory of how the Prince became a nutcracker in the first place.
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The Nutcracker Premiere
The ballet’s premiere performance took place at the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg, Russia on December 18, 1892. In this production, the parts for children were performed by the children of the Imperial Ballet School in Saint Petersburg, while the Italian composer, Riccardo Drigo conducted the performance. The premiere was not a success.
Critics had a mouthful of unpleasant criticisms about the performance. Some people criticized the performance calling it lopsided for not completely matching Hoffmann’s initial story. Many critics also called it boring, while others refuse to call it ballet.
Performance of the Nutcracker in the U.S
Early in the 20th century, the production was staged a few times. At this time, some choreographers attempted to tweak the performance to suit their personal preferences. However, it wasn’t until the 1940s that the ballet routine started to get the positive recognition that it deserved. It was in this decade that the San Francisco Ballet decided to present the Nutcracker every Christmas Eve.
After George Balanchine produced the ballet in 1954, the show gained even more popularity. By the late 1960s, the Nutcracker had established itself as the essential ballet of the holiday season. Balanchine’s choreography is still the most performed version to date. Because the first act happens on Christmas eve, the ballet is usually shown during the holiday season.
The Nutcracker is so popular in the U.S that American ballet companies generate about 40% of their yearly ticket revenue from the performance. Too bad, the composers of the premiered version didn’t live to see its success.
The Nutcracker and The Four Realms
After establishing itself to be a powerful force within the industry, the Nutcracker has continued to grow in popularity. The fairy tale ballet has gotten so popular that some of its elements like music and dance routines have been adapted in films, television shows, and video games.
One of the most popular films based on the Nutcracker is the American children’s Christmas-themed fantasy film, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms. This movie was released in 2018 and directed by Lasse Hallstrom and Joe Johnston. The movie is a retelling of Hoffman’s version of The Nutcracker and The Mouse King.
It follows the story of Clara Stahlbaum, a woman who receives a locked egg without a key, as a Christmas present from her deceased mother. She embarks on a journey to a parallel universe where she is a princess and now has to navigate this new world to find this key while keeping an eye out for enemies in disguise.
Other films and television shows like Barbie in The Nutcracker, The Nutcracker Prince, The Magic, Princess Tutu, and The Curse of Clara also contain excerpts from the original Nutcracker performance.
The Nutcracker Controversies
For most of it, this ballet routine has managed to keep a clean record and avoid controversies. Yet, some people view the second-act “Coffee” (Arabian) and “Tea” (Chinese) dances as racist. Critics believe that the need for the performers to have a uniform appearance has driven production heads to cast only white people.
Some people have made attempts to alter the dance positively. One of them is Austin McCormick, who made the Arabian dance into a pool dance. The Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre also changed the Chinese dance to a dragon dance.
The play is famous because apart from defying the primness and properness associated with ballet, it also milks the sentiments. The children’s scenes are relatable to kids and tug at the heartstrings of adults. The recognizable scores in the performance make the ballet feel familiar and at the end of the story, love wins! What more do the people want? So, if you’re about to see the ballet, special moments to look out for include the dance of the sugar plum fairy and the waltz of the flowers, both of which you will recognize instantly. Suspend all notions of the word “normal” and you won’t ask questions when you see fighting mice or gingerbread children. Instead, allow yourself to be absorbed into the magical world of The Nutcracker. Besides, magic is what the Christmas season is all about.