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With the winter holidays rapidly approaching, audiences across the United States are enjoying local and touring productions of The Nutcracker. Though Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker Suite” was an immediate success after its 1892 concert debut, the complete ballet did not gain popularity until after George Balanchine’s 1954 staging for the New York City Ballet.

So what happened in the meantime? And how was The Nutcracker initially created?

In 1890, fresh off the success of The Sleeping Beauty, Tchaikovsky was commissioned to compose a new double-bill program for the Imperial Theatres. This program was to feature an opera – Iolanta – and a ballet choreographed by Marius Petipa, Ballet Master at the Imperial Ballet and Tchaikovsky’s former collaborator on The Sleeping Beauty.

A page from E.T.A. Hoffmann's "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King"

A page from E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King”

Petipa sourced Alexandre Dumas père’s “The Tale of the Nutcracker,” – an adaptation of E.T.A. Hoffman’s story “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” – for the ballet’s libretto, or storyline. Petipa simplified the story’s plot for the ballet, specifically excising a flashback story entitled “The Tale of the Hard Nut”; The Nutcracker ballet now tells the story of a child who receives a magical nutcracker for Christmas and falls into a majestic dreamworld filled with toys and treats.

The Nutcracker’s choreographic composition shifted early on when Petipa unexpectedly became ill. Russian dancer/choreographer Lev Ivanov was called in to finish Petipa’s work, and though historically Ivanov is said to have choreographed the entirety of The Nutcracker’s 1892 premiere, it was still Petipa’s name that was listed as the choreographer on promotional posters in St. Petersburg.

The Nutcracker premiered in St. Petersburg’s Imperial Mariinsky Theatre on December 18, 1892 on a double bill with Tchaikovsky’s opera, Iolanta. While dancers and choreography received mixed reviews, Tchaikovsky’s score was an instant hit.

Since then:

Variations on The Nutcracker’s original choreography have taken many forms since the work’s original premiere. Adults have been cast as Clara and the Nutcracker Prince in several instances, which suggests more of a romantic central love story; Alexander Gorsky’s 1919 production and Vasili Vainonen’s 1934 version were examples of this choreographic choice.

The Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo brought an abridged version of The Nutcracker to New York City in 1940. Annual performances in England began in 1952. In 1954, the New York City Ballet gave the first of many annual performances of The Nutcracker with George Balanchine’s staging. And the rest is history.

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Above is a duet from George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker as staged on the New York City Ballet. Video Credit: Dance On.

The Nutcracker Onscreen:

For those who cannot see a production of The Nutcracker on a local stage, the production is being broadcast this holiday season on through a variety of networks.

December 3rd: Fathom Events is broadcasting Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker in movie theaters nationwide, including some showings in 3-D. This recorded version of The Nutcracker features the Mariinsky Theatre’s Alina Somova as Clara and Vladimir Shklyarov as the Nutcracker. For more information about this nationwide event, click here.

Sundays, November 25th-December 25th: The Ovation channel is broadcasting a performance of The Nutcracker at every Sunday this month in “Battle of the Nutcrackers”. This show pits five premier international dance companies against one another in the ultimate Nutcracker showdown. This year’s featured companies are the Royal Opera House (Nov. 25), the Bolshoi Ballet (Dec. 2), the Mariinsky Ballet, the Berlin State Ballet and Matthew Bourne’s Nutcracker!. 

For more information (and some Nutcracker performance clips), click here

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