Many years ago, I had the privilege of being taught by a ballet historian, Jennifer Fisher, while I was a graduate student of the University of California, Irvine. She is best known for her book entitled, Nutcracker Nation, in which she describes how in a very short period of time, this Russian import was adopted into the fabric of American society and became the beloved Christmas classic it is today.
Using Fisher’s book, I’d like to pull out tidbits from it to tell you about. I suspect that there are aspects of its history that will be new and entertaining to both you and your children.
In her book, Fisher quotes a world-weary dance critic, Richard Buckle, who once wrote that every Christmas we are all “one more Nutcracker closer to death.” Fisher chuckles at his quote, noting that The Nutcracker is not just inevitable but enduring. Since its St. Petersburg premiere in 1892, and its subsequent transplant here in the United States, it’s undergone untold alterations. Yet, in spite of these proliferations (The Southwest Nutcracker, The Harlem Nutcracker, The Notcracker, etc), the productions have many things in common. At the end of the day, Fisher writes, The Nutcracker is still a ballet about “a dream, a journey, family ties.”
The Nutcracker was born on December 6, 1892, at the height of the Imperial Russian Ballet. With Marius Petipa at the helm of the Mariinsky Theater, the czar and the rest of the Russian royalty had seen the hugely successful premieres of such ballets as The Sleeping Beauty, Paquita and La Bayadere. You probably already know that Tchaikovsky provided the score and that the story is loosely based on a book by ETA Hoffman. What you may not know is that, though it was headed up by the same creative team as The Sleeping Beauty, the first Nutcracker’s road to completion was quite rocky. Tchaikovsky in particular did not feel an emotional connection to the story, he was aging and most critically, his favorite sister died during the writing of it. In fact, he wrote the very serious adagio for the grand pas de deux just after her death. Meanwhile, Petipa was experiencing his own health problems and had to hand over much of the second act choreography to his inexperienced assistant, Lev Ivanov. As might be expected, the ballet was criticized intensely, with one critic writing, “It does not satisfy even one of the demands made of a ballet.” (Nutcracker Nation, Fisher)
Such was its lackluster beginning! Now, over 100 years later, The Nutcracker has earned a kind of "honorary American citizenship" and is an enduring yearly ritual (Fisher). How did the ballet of such an ignominious beginnings make its way into the heart of Americans all over? When parts of the ballet first made its way across the Atlantic Ocean in the early 20th century, it was its child-centric, glittering journey to fantasy lands that appealed to our young country in a way that it hadn’t in old world Russia (Dance Heritage Coalition, The Nutcracker, Fisher). Anna Pavlova and the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo each criss-crossed the country with experts from it and in 1940, Fantasia set to Tchaikovsky’s score introduced larger audiences to the ballet. Later, San Francisco Ballet produced the first full-length version in 1944, while George Balanchine produced his hugely influential version in 1954. With these, the annual phenomenon took off across the country.
In the 1970s, with increased funding for dance, many of the versions in existence today had their birth. Today, you could get tickets for Mark Morris’ The Hard Nut, Baton Rouge Ballet Theater’s The Nutcracker: A Tale from the Bayou, Philadelphia Rock School’s Nutcracker 1776 and many more! There are also Nutcrackers on ice, in jazz or hip hop, belly dance and flamenco. You can do a dance-along in San Francisco or participate as a mom and dad of a dancer in the party scene in one of 1000s of regional productions performed annually.
More importantly, The Nutcracker’s adoption by Americans has brought with it, according to Fisher, “‘color-blind casting’ […] because it is clearly a fantasy in which audiences can easily imagine a diverse world coming together for one purpose;” and, lead female roles. Additionally, Fisher notes, it offers roles for dancers of all abilities, a secular seasonal celebration, and a change for diverse communities to come together based on shared values of the joy of childhood, friendship, and a long for a utopian realm where everyone gets along. What a wonderful event to be a part of each year. May we treasure it as dancers and viewers for years to come.
YAGP DENVER 2017
Videos of the Week
Latest Quilt Video
"Alicia is reliable, dedicated and eternally upbeat. She is a hardworking, top-performing dance instructor and has my highest recommendation."
-Jaye Petrick, Artistic Director, Napa Valley Ballet