The Nutcracker: Cracking the Shell


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Decembers come and Decembers go, and for most ballet companies it is a hectic time of ticket sales, rehearsals, and performances. Most ballet companies produce an annual production of The Nutcracker, which brings in more revenue than any other ballet production they may perform throughout the year. People flock to theaters every December to renew the tradition of seeing The Nutcracker during the holiday season. This has been going on so long, that sometimes we may forget where this magical spectacle of dance came from in the first place.

So, where did The Nutcracker come from? Who created it? Why do we all go to see it every year?

To answer these questions, let’s start from the beginning!

What comes first, the music or the dance? In the case of professional ballet, it’s neither! What comes first is a someone with money, in this case the director of the Russian Imperial Theatres, Ivan Vsevolozhsky. In 1890 Mr. Vsevolozhsky commissioned the now well-known Peter Tchaikovsky to compose new music for a double-billed opera and ballet program. The ballet turned out to be The Nutcraker. Looking for a partner in his balletic endeavor, Tchaikovsky turned to Marius Petipa, with whom he had already worked.

NewImagePeter Tchaikovsky

In case you didn’t know, Tchaikovsky had previously worked, to great success, with Petipa on the ballet rendition of Sleeping Beauty. It was no surprise that he would once again turn to this master of the balletic form. It wasn’t Tchaikovsky, however, that chose the source material for this new ballet. Marius Petipa settled on E.T.A. Hoffman’s The Nutcracker and the Mouse King as the perfect story to base this new ballet on. The ballet master adapted the story into a ballet libretto, and began working with Tchaikovsky right away on the score.


Marius Petipa

Petipa was notoriously, meticulously demanding when it came to the music for his ballets. He gave Tchaikovsky detailed notes on the tempo and even the number of required measures for each choreographic piece in the ballet! Well, you can imagine, the legendary composer didn’t take too well to such treatment. As a result, he took his sweet time completing the work. He even took a holiday to conduct an orchestra at Carnegie Hall! Yet, frustrations aside, the music was completed and the ballet choreographed. Two years after it was commissionedThe Nutcracker finally had its debut at the Mariinsky Theatre!

There is some debate about whether or not Petipa can truly be credited as having choreographed the original Nutcracker. He was frequently ill, and his protege Lev Ivanov would step in and complete choreography for him. Most scholars today credit Lev Ivanov as the original choreographer of The Nutcracker even though Petipa was originally commissioned for the project.

CBC Sugar Plum

Two years after Ivan Vsevolozhsky hired Tchaikovsky to compose the ballet, The Nutcracker finally made it onstage in 1892 at the Mariinsky Theatre on a double bill with the opera Iolanta. It was not a resounding success, just like the other Tchaikovsky ballets. Mixed reviews plagued the ballet. Some balletomanes were put off by the Imperial Ballet’s use of children (students of the Imperial Ballet) in the children’s roles – deeming it unprofessional. Some declared parts of Tchaikovsky’s score to be insipid, or lacking inspiration! One of the biggest criticisms was that the Principal Ballerina didn’t dance her solo until the very end of the ballet in the Sugar Plum’s Grande Pas De Deux. Since the original program placed The Nutcracker after the performance of Iolanta, that meant the Principal Ballerina didn’t make her appearance until around midnight!

Amazing, isn’t it? Today The Nutcracker is considered one of Classical Ballet’s most accessible, most beloved ballet’s. By today’s standards Tchaikovsky’s score is considered luscious, complex, and full of surprises. Several musicians from the San Diego Symphony that have played for California Ballet over the past 40 years have declared that The Nutcracker is one of their favorite scores to play.

Following the 1892 production, The Nutcracker would disappear from the limelight until the 20th century. Soon it would begin to resurface with many different interpretations on many different stages in many different companies. In some versions, Clara would be called Marie. In others, the Grande Pas de Deux would be danced by Clara and her prince instead of the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Cavalier. 

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Yet, whatever changed, the heart of the ballet remained the same.

The United States wouldn’t get its own Nutcracker until the 1940’s when San Francisco Ballet would take it upon themselves to create a new holiday tradition. In the 1950’s New York City Ballet would follow suit, and by the late 1960’s ballet companies across the United States would begin performing annual holiday productions of The Nutcracker.

It only took seventy years for the ballet to achieve the fame and renown that it deserves!

California Ballet Company’s full length Nutcracker debuted in 1971. The company’s founding Director, Maxine Mahon, discerned a need in San Diego for the holiday ballet, and felt it was her duty to provide one. For the first three years of the company’s existence (1968-1970), California Ballet presented the second act of The Nutcracker. In December of 1971, Director Mahon was ready to unveil her full-length production with choreography inspired by the original Ivanov, a libretto that followed the original production, and the intact Tchaikovsky score. The production opened at the Russ Auditorium (which no longer exists) and performed to sold out audiences. The very next year, California Ballet’s Nutcracker moved to the San Diego Civic Theatre, where it has appeared every single year since 1971!

This year is no different. If you haven’t already, make California Ballet’s holiday tradition a part of your own! Join us December 15 and 16 with Orchestra Nova, an December 19, 20, 21, 22, and 23 with the San Diego Symphony as we keep the classics alive and celebrate the holidays with the ever timeless The Nutcracker!

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