The Nutcracker ballet has been ever-present in American Christmas traditions for over 60 years. It’s beloved for its visual grandeur, its focus on children, and Tchaikovsky’s score. Unfortunately for its creators, the original production in 1892 at the St. Petersburg Mariinsky Theatre was not so well-received. Most of the reviews lauded Tchaikovsky’s composition, but criticized the other elements including the choreography by Marius Petipa and his assistant Lev Ivanov. To understand what makes our modern versions of The Nutcracker so compelling, we have to look at the full history of the story and how it has been adapted and altered through the years.
The tale of Clara and her Nutcracker Prince begins in 1816 with E. T. A. Hoffmann’s story Nussknacker und Mausekönig or "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King". The story contains many familiar characters, but Clara was originally named Marie Stahlbaum (translating to "steel tree") and the writing is far darker and more surreal than our modern version. As a result, it has drawn comparisons to Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Both are stories of young girls in strange lands and both works have been sanitized and toned down in their best-known adaptations.
Hoffmann’s original German-language story was translated into French in 1844 by the author Alexandre Dumas and this version is almost exactly the same. The larger changes were made in the early 1890s by choreographer Marius Petipa who based The Nutcracker ballet on the Dumas translation. As with many adaptations, large cuts had to be made before it could work in a stage production. The original plot is complex and includes a flashback section explaining how the Prince was turned into the Nutcracker, but Petipa got rid of that entirely along with some of the story’s darker elements. Marie Stahlbaum became Clara Silberhaus (translating to "silver house") and the Land of Dolls setting became the Land of Sweets.
When it came to the musical accompaniment, after Petipa planned all the action on stage he gave Tchaikovsky incredibly specific instructions for his composition, down to the tempo and exact number of bars of music that would be needed. The ballet as a whole was not a great success initially, unlike Tchaikovsky’s condensed orchestral piece The Nutcracker Suite.
It wasn’t until 1927 that the ballet was produced outside of Russia, in Budapest, and even then it was a condensed version. The first full version performed abroad was in London in 1934. It would be another decade before the full ballet was staged in the United States, when it was produced by William Christensen in San Francisco. It’s thought that this was successful because of Disney’s 1940 film Fantasia which featured Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker Suite.
Finally, the version of the ballet which is now best-known in the US was created by Giorgi Balanchivadze, who had become George Balanchine since fleeing revolutionary Russia. Balanchine, the founder of the New York City Ballet, had performed the role of the Nutcracker Prince at age 15. In 1954, he decided to create his own version of the ballet. If you’ve seen a production featuring an enormous tree in Act I, then you have seen Balanchine’s influence. In 1957, The Nutcracker was broadcast on television across the US, gaining a much wider audience and becoming part of new Christmas traditions.
In the decades since, numerous changes have been made by individual ballet companies from year to year and no two productions are the same. The general plot remains, but stagings differ based on such things as whether or not there is dancing in the overture, whether Clara and the Prince are played by child or adult dancers, and - if Clara is played by a child - whether or not she dances on pointe. In European adaptations of the ballet, they frequently omit the Mother Ginger character, famous for her enormous crinoline, from under which children emerge. Some ballet companies include a romantic pas de deux between Clara and the Prince, but some companies feel that a romantic storyline for children is inappropriate. Possibly the biggest difference between most modern productions and the 1892 production is the ending, which in the original includes bees dancing around a hive.
In recent years, dancers and audiences have been debating changes to scenes which some believe to be racially insensitive. Traditionally the "Coffee" dance in Act II is a seductive, Arabic belly dance, which Balanchine himself said was meant for the fathers in the audience rather than the children. As a result, numerous ballet companies have toned down this section to make it less sexual. Also in Act II is the "Tea" dance, featuring a variety of Chinese stereotypes including, but not limited to: geisha wigs with chopsticks, severely slanted eyeliner, Fu Manchu mustaches, straw hats, and choreography which includes shuffling, bowing, and head bobbing. To remedy this, some directors have changed the usual "Tea" dance to a dragon dance deemed more respectful of Chinese culture. Others have kept the "Tea" dance while adjusting the makeup, costumes, and choreography. In 2017, the most influential production of The Nutcracker, by the New York City Ballet, chose the latter option. Companies throughout the country followed suit.
Ballet companies across the US rely on The Nutcracker for a large percentage of their yearly ticket sales, so making changes like this are important. I, for one, am curious to seeing what changes will be made between now and the 2021 Christmas season when we can all attend these performances again. Will the companies decide that audiences desire more comforting, traditional productions, or will new ideas make appearances after being left to ruminate this past year? We shall see.