December is upon us, which means holiday decorations are up in full force, carols are piped into public spaces, and every ballet school and company in the country is staging The Nutcracker. It’s an annual tradition for most ballet dancers to polish off one final plate of turkey and stuffing before heading directly to the magical kingdom of sweets. The Nutcracker has become synonymous with Christmas and the holiday season itself. How did this short gem of a ballet — one that could have easily been lost in the footnotes of times — go on to become the most celebrated holiday tradition in America, and make up about 40% of professional ballet companies’ annual revenue?

San Francisco Ballet in Helgi Tómasson’s The Nutcracker. (© Erik Tomasson)

To understand our obsession with The Nutcracker, it’s important to look back to the ballet’s roots in imperial Russia. In the late 1880s, the Russians went crazy when Marius Petipa, the French ballet master who took over the Imperial Ballet, collaborated with the great Russian composer Peter Tchaikovsky. Their 1889 production of Sleeping Beauty was both a musical and choreographic hit, leaving audiences clamoring for an encore.

For their next collaboration, Petipa decided on an E.T.A. Hoffmann story about a rat king and a nutcracker prince, and sent Tchaikovsky very specific instructions about what it should sound like. (There are letters between the two men in which Petipa literally says things like: “I’d like four bars of twinkly music, followed by eight bars of dramatic tree-growing music, please.”) The ballet premiered in 1892 alongside Tchaikovsky’s new opera, Iolanta. It’s safe to say the ballet was not well received: critics hated that there were dancing children in the production, which looked chaotic and amateurish, and audiences were disappointed that they didn’t get to see the prima ballerina actually dance until the very end of the ballet. It wasn’t until Tchaikovsky performed a suite of the ballet score, mostly tunes from the second act, that the music received wide-ranging acclaim as a masterpiece. It is probably the music that helped the ballet survive its initial unpopularity.

Over the years, a number of legendary stories emerged about the original score of The Nutcracker that helped build intrigue around the work. In 1886, the celesta — an instrument similar to the glockenspiel, which makes a light twinkling sound — was invented. Tchaikovsky heard the instrument and immediately decided he wanted to be the first composer to use it in a score, and wrote “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” for the instrument. He kept the instrumentation a secret, and wanted the debut of the celesta to be not only a surprise, but also to receive credit for introducing the instrument to the world. To this day, no other piece of music is as closely associated with the celesta as the Sugar Plum Fairy’s solo dance, which can still be heard in every American shopping center and car commercial from sea to shining sea.

Another of The Nutcracker’s music legends centers on a rival composer’s purported wager to Tchaikovsky, who was told he couldn’t compose a melody to an octave scale. (This was way before The Sound of Music’s “Do- a deer…”). In what is widely regarded as a major musical mic drop moment, Tchaikovsky responded with the music for the Sugar Plum Fairy’s grand pas de deux, which incorporates a descending major scale as the main tune. (French for “big step of two,” the pas de deux is usually the showstopper for the male dancer and the ballerina.) There are also echoes of Russian funeral music in this section, perhaps an homage to Tchaikovsky’s sister, who died while he was composing the ballet.

The Washington Ballet’s Nutcracker (© Theo Kossenas).

So how did The Nutcracker, a ballet born out of the Russian Imperial Theatre, make its way across the Atlantic and into the hearts of the residents of the New World? The first productions of The Nutcracker seen in the U.S. were abridged versions by the Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo, a mixed company of dancers from across Russia and Europe with varying degrees of proximity to the original imperial production. With the outbreak of WWII, many of these dancers became stranded and thus settled in America, and soon little Nutcracker suites began popping up across the country. It wasn’t until 1944 that San Francisco Ballet put on America’s first full production that was native to our country. The choreography was by San Francisco Ballet’s artistic director, Willam Christensen, but the project was strongly encouraged by George Balanchine, a Russian émigré who later went on to found the New York City Ballet. Balanchine helped Christensen piece together what he remembered from dancing the ballet in his early years as a student in the Imperial Theatre in Russia, while encouraging Christensen to make his own new version.

It wouldn’t be until 1954, when Balanchine would attempt his own version for his New York City Ballet, that we would see the incredible spread of this ballet as we know it now. Because of the proximity of his company to the budding television networks in New York City, when CBS broadcast the ballet in 1957, millions of families were exposed to The Nutcracker from the fireside comfort of their living rooms. Walt Disney had previously popularized the music in film with his 1940 version of Fantasia (featuring dancing vegetables and goldfish), which made the ballet instantly familiar with television audiences.

Since then, The Nutcracker has trickled down into every dance studio in America, with young dancers graduating from party guest, mouse, and soldier roles to tackling the challenge of the Sugar Plum Fairy and her cavalier. Every professional American company blocks off Thanksgiving to New Year’s Eve and performs a nightly revival of the legendary battle of the Rat King and the Nutcracker.

Today, there are hip hop Nutcrackers, classical Indian dance Nutcrackers, Barbie Nutcrackers, Burlesque and Slut-Crackers, Nutcrackers on Ice. The ballet has taken on a new meaning since coming to America, one with a focus on family and the magic of childhood, and bringing together the people of the world to celebrate the holidays. It is one of the reasons why we bring IVY members to experience this jewel from the imperial ballet year after year, and why The Nutcracker will always have a special place around the holidays.

For further learning, consider reading Nutcracker Nation by Jennifer Fisher.

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