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Moscow Ballet's Ethereal Dove

Nuts About the Nutcracker

By Francine L. Trevens
ART TIMES December 2006

There are many Christmas holiday traditions throughout the world, which have little to do with religion.  There’s Santa Claus, the giving of gifts, carol singing, readings of the “Night Before Christmas” and viewings of various “takes” on Scrooge.  There’s plum pudding, mince pies, eggnog and fruitcakes.

In the world of dance, there is a tradition that dates back the to the late 19th century – the tradition of The Nutcracker, the marvelous ballet Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was commissioned by Marius Petipa to compose for Russia’s Kirov Ballet. Based on Alexandre Dumas’ adaptation of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s book, “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King,” which was published in the early 1800s, the ballet was choreographed by Lev Ivanov and conducted at that premiere performance on Dec. 8, 1890 by Riccardo Drigo.

Marius Petipa, renowned dancer/choreographer who choreographed the composer’s Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty Ballet, wrote the libretto for The Nutcracker, to which Tchaikovsky composed the music. The Nutcracker was one of the composer’s final works. He died November 6, 1893 a year after its premiere.  A suspicion was raised that the composer might have taken poison, but the official records state he died of cholera, which had killed his mother when he was only fourteen years old.  Pyotr Ilyich suffered fits of depression throughout his life, yet his music resounds with romanticism, lyricism and hope.

A disciple of Petipa’s, Lev Ivanov, who preferred the Romantic era to the Classical era Petipa himself espoused, gave full vent to his preference in The Dance of the Snowflakes segment from The Nutcracker.  In it, he tried to create the look and feel of an actual snowstorm. According to reports at the time, he did it with a simplicity that beautifully translated the music into movement.

Tchaikovsky is remembered for many types of musical works – 10 operas, sonatas, string quartets, cantatas, symphonies, songs and ballets, but no ballet by any composer is performed as regularly, world wide, as The Nutcracker.

The Nutcracker ballet was performed in various parts of its native Russia after its debut at the Mariinsky Theatre of St. Petersburg, It took almost forty years before it made it to Europe.  Its popularity grew rapidly, however, since the nineteen thirties, and now it is performed in European countries as divergent as the Czech Republic, Finland, Denmark, England and in Asia, Australia, New Zealand and throughout the Americas, including Canada, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela.

It first appeared in the United States performed by the Ballet Russe in 1940.  The first staged in America Nutcracker was choreographed by Willam Chistensen for the San Francisco Ballet later in the 1940’s. 

The Nutcracker New York city Ballet ©Paul Kolnik

Since then, it has been adopted by almost every major city in the U. S, and is a traditional part of the Christmas season throughout Texas, California, Virginia, Florida and the Northeast.  George Balanchine’s choreography for the New York City Ballet is often credited for being the version which popularized the ballet.

It is often performed with movements transposed, and for a long time The Nutcracker Suite, eight selections from the ballet which Tchaikovsky himself selected, was mistaken for the entire 90-minute ballet.  The Suite premiered a year before the complete ballet was performed.     

Everyone is familiar with one part of the music or another.  It is used in movies as background music, has been adapted for commercials, and rings forth from radio stations every Christmas season.

It is difficult to believe, therefore, that his piano teacher, who told him not to go into the music field as he hadn’t the talent for it, discouraged Tchaikovsky.  When he began composing, critics were scathing.  Even when the critics panned Tchaikovsky, however, he was a popular favorite, though he himself often felt inadequate as a composer.  He had many misgivings about The Nutcracker as he was composing it.  His romantic style was against the trend of the times.  Later in his lifetime, of course, he was much appreciated, was given many special awards, and his 1812 Overture, composed in the 1880’s, remains a frequently performed piece along with his operas, ballets and other music.

     It was a tradition in our family to attend The Nutcracker, a most special part of the winter season.  My older daughter saw it when she was three and was entranced.  When we took my 3-year-old younger daughter, she was so frightened as the music turned foreboding and the godfather, Herr Drosselmeyer appeared, she grew hysterical.  She and I spent most of the first act in the lobby, where, fortunately we could still enjoy the music.  I guess that’s why they recommend it for children four and over. 

The story takes place On Christmas Eve. After playing games and receiving gifts, young Clara, leaving her bed at midnight, comes back downstairs to the tree and her precious nutcracker doll, which her brother had broken.  Her godfather fixed it, but she is checking to be sure it is safe and sound when she falls asleep and has an incredibly detailed fantasy dream.

She thinks the nutcracker doll, given her by Herr Drosselmeyer, has come to life and fought, leading the toy soldiers, against enormous mice.  The fight concludes when the Nutcracker, with Clara’s help, slays the multi-headed mouse king.

Then Clara arrives with the Nutcracker in the enchanted forest of the land of snow.  Dancing snowflakes welcome them.  They then go to the Land of Sweets, where the SugarPlum Fairy regales them with a celebration of dance when she learns of the defeat of the mouse king.  The dancers represent many ethnicities, such as Spanish, Arabian, Russian, and Chinese.  The dances end with the Waltz of the Flowers, followed by a lovely Pas De Deux between the SugarPlum Fairy and her Cavalier.

Clara awakens to find herself near the tree with her Nutcracker cradled in her arms.

This is a variation on the original book, in which Clara was named Maria, and many other details were different.

Some of the greatest ballet names have choreographed this incredible ballet.

In Rudolph Nureyev’s version, Nureyev danced both Drosselmeyer and the Prince, but did NOT dance the role of the Nutcracker.  He changed the order of some musical numbers, and repeated the “mice attack” towards the end. In the original book, the mouse king was not killed, so this followed that original story somewhat.

In Baryshnikov’s version, broadcast on TV in 1977, while the entire Tchaikovsky score is used, the order of many dances in ACT II was changed, the Arabian dance was cut and the Pas De Deux was between Clara and the Prince, instead of the SugarPlum Fairy and her cavalier, among other differences.

Moscow Ballet has been seen throughout The United States, including Saginaw, Michigan; Grand Forks, North Dakota; San Diego, California among others.   This year, it has scheduled 70 cities on its holiday tour. Moscow Ballet’s Artistic Director and choreographer Anatoli Emelianov stars as the Enchanted Nutcracker Prince, with Anastasia Mikheykina and Maria Makarenko alternating the role of Masha (Clara in the U.S).  Emelianov’s Nutcracker is praised for its unique setting of ACT II in the “Land of Peace and Harmony.”  To convey this, he introduced a new character, an ethereal Dove that leads Masha and the Nutcracker Prince to the land where there are no wars or suffering.  The painted backdrop of playful lions, unicorns and peacocks provides a vibrant setting for larger than life puppets that delight young and old.

In San Antonio they have David Dixon’s Nutcracker, which premiered in 1995 and is purportedly performed to Petipa’s specifications.

The English Royal Ballet has a new rendition to be performed at the Royal Opera House.  This erstwhile company was founded by Sir Frederick Ashton with Ninette de Valois. Ashton had a distinguished career as dancer and choreographer.  He studied with Leonide Massine, among others.  He is seen on American TV in Cinderella as one of the wicked stepsisters.   In The Royal Ballet's current version if The Nutcracker, Lev Ivanov's choreography is re-interpreted by Peter Wright.

English National Ballet of London, now in its fifth year, offers the ballet in Southampton and at the London Coliseum with Christopher Hampson’s choreography.   It is a “fun” version with special touches that give it a more modern feel.

The Boston Ballet production, in its 39th year, performs at Boston’s Opera House, using 300 children from the Boston Ballet School.  The current production is choreographed by Mikko Nissinen, who hails from Finland, studied at the Kirov Ballet School, danced with the Dutch National Ballet and the San Francisco Ballet, among others.

The New York City Ballet at the New York State Theatre uses 90 dancers, 63 musicians, 50 students from the school, 73 stage hands and has performed the ballet since 1954 – dancing over 150 Nutcrackers. It’s tree, growing from seven feet to 40 feet, its bouncing big mice, the lady with a skirt which opens to reveal a passel of children, are all distinctive memories from its earliest performances.  For my family, this is the definitive Nutcracker. 

Undoubtedly, people around the country feel their annual presentation is the sine quo non of this incredibly popular, long loved and long-lived ballet.

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