The Nutcracker by Tchaikovsky: The Story Behind the Making of the Ballet and Its Summary

The Nutcracker by Tchaikovsky: The Story Behind the Making of the Ballet and Its Summary

A ballet record holder in terms of the number of performances, a stage long-liver, colorful and ceremonial - it looks like a sparkling Christmas ornament you can’t take your eyes off.

The story behind the making: "complex" music and controversial premiere

In 1890, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky received a new order from the Directorate of the Imperial Theaters. By that time, the composer had already created Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty. Now, the head of the Imperial Theaters, Ivan Vsevolozhsky, instructed him to write an opera and a ballet to be given in one evening. The libretto was already there: the choreographer Marius Petipa provided a detailed plan with a choreographic exposition.

When working on the production, Petipa's original choreographic idea changed. It is known that the choreographer initially planned to include songs from the French Revolution era into the second act. Of course, the censorship could never allow a ballet with revolutionary motives on the stage. However, Tchaikovsky nevertheless used one of those songs - Bon voyage, Monsieur Dumollet - in his score.

Later, Petipa's student Lev Ivanov joined the production and brought his choreographic and directorial findings to the performance. For example, the famous Waltz of the Snowflakes and the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy appeared in the ballet thanks to Ivanov.

The composer's work on the ballet was not easy. Tchaikovsky had to combine the symphonic music of the first act with a divertissement without a specific plot in the second part of the production. It was at the request of Pyotr Ilyich that the premiere of the ballet was postponed for a year. At that time, Tchaikovsky wrote: 

“I am working with all my strength and reconciling myself to the subject of the ballet.

The premiere took place at the end of 1892. As Vsevolozhsky planned, the opera Iolanta was given on stage of the Mariinsky Theater first, and The Nutcracker followed right after it. The music for both productions was written by Tchaikovsky. Students of the theater school of the imperial company participated in the ballet performance. This premiere was the beginning of a great tradition where young dancers go on stage in an "adult" ballet. By the way, that evening every beginning artist received a Christmas gift from the composer - a box of chocolates.

The premiere production consisted of two acts and three scenes. Back then, the ballet got bad reviews. Critics agreed that the music turned out to be more complex than the production itself, however, there were opinions that the symphonic accompaniment was weaker than usual. The publicist Konstantin Skalkovsky wrote in Birzhevaya Gazeta: 

“The Nutcracker was staged mainly for children; for the dancers it contains very little; for art - exactly nothing. Even the music turned out to be rather weak.

However, the reviews were rather controversial than negative. For example, the artist and theatrical figure Alexander Benois wrote after seeing the dress rehearsal of the ballet: 

“The emperor was delighted, he called to his box and said a lot of sympathetic words. The production ... is magnificent and even too magnificent in ballet - the eyes get tired of all this luxury.

Interestingly, the leading roles in the premiere were performed by artists whose age was very close to that of their characters. Dancer Stanislava Belinskaya, who played Marie, was only 12 years old then. Dancer Sergei Legat, who performed the part of the Nutcracker, was 17. At that time, both studied at the St. Petersburg theater school. Alas, critics were rather severe about their work after the premiere.

But despite the conflicting reviews (even Tchaikovsky admitted that it was hard for him to watch The Nutcracker because of the extremely loud costumes), the ballet remained on stage. 

Ballet content: one extraordinary night

There is a reason why The Nutcracker has been a favorite Christmas and New Year story on the ballet stages of the world for several centuries. The ballet is set in the Stahlbaum house, where guests gather to celebrate Christmas. The hosts’ children, Marie and Fritz, are waiting for miracles and a happy holiday. Among the guests is their godfather, Drosselmeyer, who has prepared an unusual surprise for the children.

The decoration of the first act is a gorgeous Christmas tree. Children gather in front of it waiting for the presents.

Drosselmeyer appears as a magician who can bring toys to life. Children are fascinated by him and his mysterious magic. Suddenly, the wizard takes off his mask - and turns out to be their godfather who is ready to please Marie and Fritz with gifts. It is he who gives the girl a doll - an awkward funny Nutcracker. Fritz, with the awkwardness typical of naughty boys, breaks the toy. Marie takes pity on her new friend, gently rocks it. And Fritz continues to play with the other children. They put on mouse masks and tease the upset girl. Soon, the party ends, and the guests leave the Stahlbaum house.

The action continues at night in the same room with the Christmas tree. Marie can't sleep: she sneaked here to visit her injured Nutcracker. She wants to hug and calm the doll down again. At this very moment, Drosselmeyer suddenly appears next to her, but he doesn’t look like a godfather giving presents, but like a real magician, as during the evening performance. He works magic: toys come to life, a whole mouse army, led by the Mouse King, appears from under the floor. The dolls are scared as they are in mortal danger now! And then the Nutcracker leads the tin soldiers belonging to Fritz into battle. With a sinking heart, Marie watches how her dear friend first leads a whole army and then challenges the Mouse King himself. And she is destined to play an important role in this battle. Drosselmeyer hands her a burning candle, and the girl throws it at the mice to save the Nutcracker. The enemy army scatters away from the fire, only one brave warrior remains on the battlefield.

Marie rushes to help the defeated doll, but a handsome prince is walking towards her. The magic continues: the walls of the house seem to move apart, and Marie and the prince find themselves under the stars near the decorated Christmas tree. A star flickers at the top of the festive tree, and they go towards it in a magic boat.

The second act of the ballet begins in the same place we left the characters - on the way to the bright star at the top of the Christmas tree. When their inviting magic goal is so near, the mouse army and the king attack them again. The Nutcracker, now as a prince, courageously fights back, and Marie and the dolls excitedly watch the outcome of the battle. Now, the Nutcracker defeats the enemy - it's time to celebrate the victory!

The splendid part of the second act is the dancing of the living dolls and fairies, the triumph of the victorious good in the magical city of Confiturenburg. Marie and the Prince are happy at this holiday, because their dreams have come true!

The Christmas ball is beautiful, but the denouement brings them back to reality. The festive night has passed, Marie sits next to the Christmas tree holding a doll on her lap - the funny and silent Nutcracker. The magic dream has gone with the dawn of a new day.

After the premiere: the history of Russian and foreign productions

A long life on stage awaited The Nutcracker. Right after the premiere, it stayed in the Mariinsky's repertoire for more than 30 years. During this period, the ballet changed, of course, but the audience always greeted it warmly.

In 1919, Alexander Gorsky transferred Tchaikovsky's ballet to the stage of the Moscow Bolshoi Theater. This version was recognized as innovative both by the critics and the public but, in contrast to the "classical" one, it was received worse. So, it didn’t stay in the theater's repertoire for a long time.

Four years later, the renewed Nutcracker appeared on stage again, this time in St. Petersburg. The choreographer Fyodor Lopukhov presented a production, where the main character was named Masha. The choreographer worked in the avant-garde style. He decided to leave the usual sparkling Christmas decorations behind and replace them with multi-colored shields on wheels. This ballet vanished from the posters quickly too: less than 10 performances were given.

A new Mariinsky variation of The Nutcracker was released in 1934. Choreographer Vasili Vainonen presented a production that was clearly aimed at young audiences: dolls in bright costumes, a sparkling Christmas tree and even magic tricks on stage. By the way, Galina Ulanova danced in the premiere performance. In the same year, The Nutcracker "emigrated" to London for the first time, together with the choreographer Nikolai Sergeev.

In 1954, choreographer George Balanchine introduced Tchaikovsky's ballet to New Yorkers. He took the classical production by Petipa as a basis and added his own choreography. The audience liked the performance and it became a classic.

On March 12, 1966, choreographer Yuri Grigorovich presented his variation of the ballet on stage of the Bolshoi Theater. He also wrote the libretto, relying on the original source - the tale by Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann, and on the work of one of his predecessors - Marius Petipa. This contemporary production is believed to be the closest to the canon. By the way, visitors of the Bolshoi have seen The Nutcracker more than 500 times! If we add other productions to this impressive figure, it becomes clear: Tchaikovsky's ballet is not only a long-liver, but also a record holder in terms of the number of performances.

Tchaikovsky's third ballet gave space for experimentation for the dancer and choreographer Rudolf Nureyev. He altered Petipa's libretto quite a lot, creating a more Gothic plot with the atmosphere that was closer to the German primary source, a romanticism model. Since 1967, this production has been staged at the Covent Garden Theater in London.

In 1976, dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov successfully performed the Nutcracker role at the American Ballet Theater. He also acted as a choreographer in this production. The American audience loved the story of the girl and the awkward Nutcracker as much as ours: they give hundreds of performances in the United States every year during the Christmas season.

The Nutcracker symbols: the Sugar Plum Fairy and a real carnival of characters

One of the most recognizable fragments of the classical production is the dance of the ruler of Confiturenburg, the Sugar Plum Fairy, in act II. At the premiere in 1892, this number was performed on a miniature piano having metal plates instead of strings. The instrument was called celesta, Tchaikovsky brought it from Paris. Before the first show in Russia, nobody had heard such music: later, theater critics compared the celesta sound with the gentle ringing of crystal. And in Marius Petipa’s libretto, the sounds of the Fairy's dance were compared to the sounds of falling drops.

Choreographically, the “aerial” dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy was difficult and included 16 fouettés. For the first time this part was performed at the Mariinsky Theater by the Italian prima ballerina, Antonietta Dell'Era.

The choreographic culmination of the ballet is the world-famous Waltz of the Flowers. In the premiere performance of 1892, it was performed by 24 corps de ballet dancers and 8 soloists, dressed in golden costumes. Later, the number of dancers changed: 6 soloists and 16 corps de ballet dancers remained. At first, the waltz was called “golden” - according to the color of the dancers' costumes, then “pink”, when in 1934 choreographer Vasili Vainonen introduced pink clothes into his production at the Mariinsky. The invariable allusion when looking at the dancers is a bouquet of vivid flowers in a vase.

Another dance-symbol in Tchaikovsky's ballet is the Waltz of Snowflakes, originally staged by Petipa's assistant Lev Ivanov. In the plot, this dance is associated with the obstacles that arise in front of Marie and the Prince on their way to the magical Confiturenburg. Over time, the number of the snowflake dancers also declined, from 60 to 38.

Working on The Nutcracker is a challenging task for stage designers. There are about 150 costumes in the classical production - not only people, dolls, fairies and mice have their own visual images in the ballet. Snowflakes, toys, even flowers appear in their own unique costumes in the production. Moreover, at a rough estimate, each dance of the snowflakes requires at least 20 kg of confetti. Spectacular in a carnival way, having the atmosphere of a real holiday - this is how the Nutcracker is known and enjoyed by connoisseurs of ballet in many countries.

A principal dancer of the Bolshoi, Artem Ovcharenko, who performs the part of the Nutcracker Prince, said about the immortal production:

 “I saw Grigorovich's The Nutcracker for the first time when I was already invited to the Bolshoi Theater. I have no other performance that awakens such feelings and thoughts about magic. We, adults, who, it seems to us, know this life with its cynicism and turmoil, suddenly plunge into the atmosphere where magic is created. Here we turn into children with their pure dreams and sincere belief in miracles. Here, you can make wishes and they will come true".