The Nutty History of "The Nutcracker"
The Nutcracker has become an essential part of the holiday season—not to mention a part of most dancers' DNA. These days, the ballet is a beloved tradition, and the lifeblood of many dance companies, whose budgets depend on its reliably great ticket sales. But did you know that it was a flop when it first premiered in Russia? Or that George Balanchine himself once played Drosselmeyer on TV? Here's a timeline of the rich history of The Nutcracker.
E.T.A. Hoffmann writes the fairy tale Nutcracker and Mouse King—and it is dark. The story follows a young girl, Marie, who travels to the Land of Toys to help her beloved Nutcracker defeat a seven-headed Mouse King with brainwashing powers(!).
French writer Alexandre Dumas adapts Hoffmann's work into The Tale of the Nutcracker, a lighter take on the story that would become the inspiration for the ballet.
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky begins to compose The Nutcracker, the last of his three ballets (after Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty). While traveling in Paris, he discovers a new bell-toned instrument called the celesta, which he ends up using for the iconic Sugar Plum Fairy variation. Marius Petipa begins to choreograph the ballet, but becomes ill during the process. Mariinsky Ballet ballet master Lev Ivanov completes the choreography.
The Nutcracker premieres at the Imperial Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, Russia, with the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy danced by Italian ballerina Antoinetta dell'Era. Though selections from the score were well-received in concert a few months earlier, critics call the ballet "an insult," and it's quickly removed from the company's repertory.
Tchaikovsky dies without knowing what a success his holiday ballet would become.
Courtesy All CDCovers.com
Walt Disney includes music from Tchaikovsky's score in the animated movie Fantasia, helping American audiences get to know (and fall in love with) The Nutcracker's music. The Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo tours the United States with a condensed version of The Nutcracker. The performances are well-received, and the Ballet Russe continues to dance its abbreviated Nut in the U.S. for the next decade.
San Francisco Ballet in the first version of "The Nutcracker" (courtesy Dance Magazine Archives)
The San Francisco Ballet presents the first complete version of The Nutcracker in the United States, choreographed by William Christensen and premiering on Christmas Eve. While choreographing, Christensen seeks the advice of ballerina Alexandra Danilova and choreographer George Balanchine, both of whom danced in the original Nutcracker production at the Mariinsky.
Balanchine, now leader of the New York City Ballet, is asked to edit out the dramatic growing tree from his new production of The Nutcracker due to budget constraints. He refuses, saying, "No, ballet is the tree."
Maria Tallchief (original Sugarplum) and Erik Bruhn in NYCB's Nutcracker (courtesy Dance Magazine Archives)
NYCB premieres Balanchine's version of The Nutcracker, starring Maria Tallchief as the Sugarplum Fairy and featuring many dance quotations from the Mariinsky original. The show—Balanchine's first full-length production for the company—is an instant sensation.
Balanchine (right) coaching dancers for the 1957 TV production of "The Nutcracker" (courtesy Dance Magazine Archives)
CBS airs Balanchine's Nutcracker on national television. Balanchine himself plays Drosselmeyer, Diana Adams is the Sugarplum Fairy, and Allegra Kent dances Dewdrop. The television coverage exposes an even wider audience to the irresistible show.
Photo by Joe Buglewicz, courtesy NYC & Company
New York City Ballet performs The Nutcracker at their new Lincoln Center home for the first time. George Balanchine has the New York State Theater's stage specially constructed to accommodate the tree, which grows from 18 to 41 feet (and weighs 2,200 pounds!)
Lindsi Dec and William Lin-Yee as Clara and the Nutcracker Prince in Pacific Northwest Ballet's Maurice Sendak production (photo by Angela Sterling, courtesy PNB)
Pacific Northwest Ballet premieres Kent Stowell's version of The Nutcracker, a collaboration with Where the Wild Things Are author Maurice Sendak. The production, with imaginative designs by Sendak, explores more of the emotional torment of the original story; ultimately, Clara is left behind in The Land of Sweets. (In 2014, PNB retires the Sendak production and begins performing Balanchine's version.)
Mark Morris Dance Group's "The Hard Nut" (photo by Julieta Cervantes, courtesy Mark Morris Dance Group)
Mark Morris premieres The Hard Nut, an offbeat take on the original Hoffmann tale that includes some of the narratives edited out of the traditional ballet. He sets his version in the 1970s United States, and adds modern toys (like GI Joes) and retro designs inspired by the work of comic book artist Charles Burns.
Macaulay Culkin (far right) and Darci Kistler in the 1994 NYCB "Nutcracker" film (courtesy Dance Magazine Archives)
Home Alone's Macaulay Culkin, then a student at the School of American Ballet, plays the Nutcracker prince in Emile Ardolino's film version of Balanchine's Nutcracker.
Donald Byrd premieres The Harlem Nutcracker, featuring Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn's jazzy arrangement of Tchaikovsky's score. Celebrating the American black family, it features Clara as a widowed grandmother.
NYC's Department of Cultural Affairs reports 27 productions of The Nutcracker in the Big Apple alone.
Dance companies around the world continue to perform hundreds of productions of The Nutcracker each year, and audiences continue to flock to them. Nut ticket sales account for nearly half of many dance companies' annual income.
A version of this story appeared in the December 2018 issue of Dance Spirit with the title "The Fascinating (And Sometimes Nutty) History of The Nutcracker."
- No Sugar Plums Here: The Dark, Romantic Roots Of 'The Nutcracker ... ›
- The History of the Nutcracker Ballet in America | Time ›
- BBC - Culture - How Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker became a Christmas ... ›
Congratulations to Dance Spirit's 2019 Cover Model Search finalists: Darriel Johnakin, Diego Pasillas, and Emma Sutherland! One of them will win a spot on Dance Spirit's Fall 2019 cover. Learn more about the dancers on their profile pages, and then vote for your favorite below. You can vote once a day now through July 15.
We also want you to get social! We'll be factoring social media likes and shares into our final tallies. Be sure to show your favorite finalist some love on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, sharing their profile pages and using the hashtag #DanceSpiritCMS.
Imagine attending American Ballet Theatre's prestigious NYC summer intensive, training among classical ballet legends. Imagine taking the stage at New York City Dance Alliance Nationals, competing against some of the country's best contemporary dancers. Now, imagine doing both—at the same time.
Welcome to Madison Brown's world. This summer, she's in her third year as a National Training Scholar with ABT, while also competing for NYCDA's Teen Outstanding Dancer title. (She's already won Outstanding Dancer in the Mini and Junior categories.) The logistics are complicated—ABT's five-week intensive overlaps with the weeklong NYCDA Nationals, which translates to a lot of cabs back and forth across Manhattan—but Maddie is committed to making the most of each opportunity. "I love contemporary and ballet equally," she says. "While I'm able to do both, I want to do as much as I can."
Maddie has an expressive face, endless extensions, and a quiet command of the stage. She dances with remarkable maturity—a trait noted by none other than Jennifer Lopez, one of the judges on NBC's "World of Dance," on which Maddie competed in Season 2. Although Maddie didn't take home the show's top prize, she was proud to be the youngest remaining soloist when she was eliminated, and saw the whole experience as an opportunity to grow. After all, she's just getting started. Oh, that's right—did we mention Maddie's only 14?
If you're a hardcore Broadway baby, today is the worst Sunday of the year. Why, you ask? The Tony Awards were last Sunday, so basically there's nothing to look forward to in life anymore—no James Corden being James Corden, no teary acceptance speeches from newly minted stars, no thrilling excerpts from the hottest new shows. Oh yeah, and there are 50 more Sundays to go before our humdrum lives are once again blessed with the next annual iteration of Broadway's biggest night.