In 1892, Marius Petipa, a French ballet dancer and choreographer, and Lev Ivanov, a Russian ballet dancer and choreographer, undertook choreographing the story of The Nutcracker and the Mouse King into a ballet. They used the French Dumas translation as the basis for their story. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, who had worked with Petipa before on The Sleeping Beauty in 1890, was chosen to write the score. The production debuted at the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1892, just before Christmas, and was not initially a success.
The ballet changed several elements of the story, completely removing the fairytale of Pirlipat within, and expanding upon the Land of Sweets. Marie’s name becomes Clara in the ballet. Marius Petipa, the choreographer, had a daughter named Marie, a famous ballerina. It is believed that because she was not in The Nutcracker, the main character’s name was changed to Clara, so there would be no confusion. In the book, Marie injures herself and has a three-day fever, which is when she hears the story of Pirlipat. In the ballet, Clara is not injured and is never told this story. The Sugar Plum Fairy, a beloved character, did not exist until the creation of the ballet. However, she was not as popular in the initial production as she is today—reviewers called her “corpulent,” and complained that The Nutcracker had no plot.
Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite was arguably the most successful part of the ballet’s original performance. This is a twenty-minute selection of music from the ballet’s score that debuted before the performance, as a sneak peek. The Nutcracker Suite was even included in Disney’s 1940 Fantasia. However, Tchaikovsky was not the first person to put the story to music.
Carl Reinecke was a German composer, pianist, and conductor most well-known for doing the piano arrangement for Silent Night. Less well-known is an eight-piece collection he wrote to accompany the story of The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. The sheet music for some of these pieces was published in 1855, predating the ballet. They were written for two people playing one piano, and performances of them were often accompanied by a reading of an abridged version of the story. After Tchaikovsky, Reinecke’s Nutcracker pieces were mostly forgotten, though they remain popular in Germany for recitals and school Christmas programs.
It wasn’t until 1934 that The Nutcracker debuted outside of Russia. It appeared first in England, finally making its way to the United States in 1944, performed by the San Francisco Ballet. In 1954, the New York City Ballet performed the Nutcracker with George Balanchine’s staging. This included 35 roles for children, and over time, more and more ballet companies, small and large, started to perform The Nutcracker (many using Balanchine’s staging). With so many roles for children, it’s often the first ballet kids either perform in or see on stage.
By the 1960s, The Nutcracker was a holiday classic in America. Each year, as more and more choreographers put their own spin on it, we get new adaptations. In 1986, Maurice Sendack worked on a production with the Pacific Northwest Ballet: his set and costume designs became the illustrations for Ralph Manheim’s translation of the book and a movie version of the ballet. In 2018, Disney put out their own adaptation, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms.
The many versions and interpretations of the story, as well as the evolution into a ballet with an altered story, are one of the things I find so fascinating about The Nutcracker. Do you remember the first time you saw the ballet or heard the story? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!