The Classic Christmas Story Ballet
The origin of the Nutcracker, a classic Christmas Story, is a fairy tale ballet in two acts centered on a family’s Christmas Eve celebration. Alexandre Dumas Père’s adaptation of the story by E.T.A. Hoffmann was set to music by Tchaikovsky and originally choreographed by Marius Petipa. It was commissioned by the director of Moscow’s Imperial Theatres, Ivan Vsevolozhsky, in 1891, and premiered a week before Christmas 1892. Since premiering in western countries in the 1940s, this ballet has become perhaps the most popular to be performed around Christmas time. The story centers on a young girl’s Christmas Eve and her awakening to the wider world and romantic love. The composer made a selection of eight of the more popular pieces before the ballet’s December 1892 premiere, forming what is currently known as the Nutcracker Suite, Op. 71a, as is heard in Moscow Ballet productions. The suite became instantly popular; however the complete ballet did not achieve its great popularity as a Christmas performance event until almost 100 years later.
Performance History and the St. Petersburg Premiere
The first performance of the Christmas ballet was held as a double premiere together with Tchaikovsky’s last opera, Iolanta, around the Christmas holiday season on December 18 [O.S. December 6] 1892, at the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia. It is generally agreed that Lev Ivanov, Second Balletmaster to the St. Petersburg Imperial Theatres, worked closely with Marius Petipa, Premier Maître de Ballet of the St. Petersburg Imperial Theatres and widely regarded as the Father of Russian Ballet, to create the holiday ballet. It was conducted by Riccardo Drigo, with Antoinetta Dell-Era as the Sugar Plum Fairy, Pavel Gerdt as her Prince, Stanislava Belinskaya as Clara/Masha, Sergei Legat as the Nutcracker Prince, and Timofei Stukolkin as Uncle Drosselmeyer. More about Tchaikovsky’s classic ‘Nutcracker’ score
In Europe and the U.S.
The Christmas ballet was first performed outside Russia in England in 1934. Its first United States performance was in 1944 by the San Francisco Ballet, staged by its artistic director and Balanchine student Willam Christensen. The New York City Ballet first performed George Balanchine’s Nutcracker in 1954 but the holiday ballet did not begin to achieve its great popularity until after the George Balanchine staging became a hit in New York City. The now well known Christmas story has been published in many book versions including colorful children-friendly ones. The plot revolves around a German girl named Clara Stahlbaum and her coming-of-age one Christmas holiday. In Hoffmann’s tale, the girl’s name is Marie or Maria, while Clara – or “Klärchen” – is the name of one of her dolls. In the Great Russian Nutcracker, she is affectionately called Masha.
Tchaikovsky accepted the commission from director of Moscow’s Imperial Theatres, Ivan Vsevolozhsky, writing to a friend while composing the ballet, “I am daily becoming more and more attuned to my task.” While composing the music for the charming Christmas story, Tchaikovsky is said to have argued with a friend who wagered that the composer could not write a melody based on the notes of the octave in sequence. Tchaikovsky asked if it mattered whether the notes were in ascending or descending order, and was assured it did not. This resulted in the Grand Adage from the Grand Pas de Deux of the second act where Clara/Masha dances with her magical Christmas present, the Nutcracker Prince. Among other things, the score of The Nutcracker is noted for its use of the celesta, an instrument that the composer had already employed in his much lesser known symphonic ballad, The Voyevoda (premiere 1891). Although well-known in The Nutcracker as the featured solo instrument in the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” from Act II, it is also employed elsewhere in the same act.
Moscow Ballet’s Great Russian Nutcracker
Moscow Ballet’s version of the Nutcracker ballet, known as the “Great Russian Nutcracker,” includes other unique elements in the telling of the traditional holiday tale. In the Moscow Ballet version, the setting is in Moscow and the city’s famous onion-domed skyline is featured as a backdrop. Traditional Russian folk characters Ded Moroz (Father Christmas) and Snegurochka (Snow Maiden) escort Masha and the Nutcracker Prince to their dream world in Act II.
Finally the “Dove of Peace,” exclusive to Moscow Ballet’s version, welcomes the couple to the “Land of Peace and Harmony” traditionally called “The Land of Sweets.” The “Dove of Peace” was inspired by performances of Stanislov Vlasov, former Bolshoi Ballet dancer and choreographer/ballet master of Moscow Ballet’s inaugural 1993 Great Russian Nutcracker, and partner Lilia Sabitova, People’s Artist of Russia.
“The Russian ballet style is elegant, expansive, brimful with feeling, knockout male dancer…confers an unusual thrill, and...Kids…were wide-eyed with delight,” The New York Times, Alastair Macaulay, Chief Dance Critic, 2010
“Perhaps one of the most magical moments of all, was delivered by a truly excellent Snow Forest corps, a veritable highlight excelling in both synchrony and grace. Both male and female corps were outstanding all night.” Calgary Herald, Stephan Bonfield 2014
“Acclaimed dancers Anatolie Ustimov and Alisa Voronova…lead a cast of traditionalists who treat theGreat Russian Nutcracker as the spectacular, globe-spanning institution that it is.” Denver Post, John Wenzel 2014
“[Moscow Ballet’s Great Russian Nutcracker]…lively and resourceful with an unusual array of bright, painted backdrops adding to the Christmas cheer…disarmingly poetic…faultless mastery of the steps…bravura expertise.” – Los Angeles Times 2013 Lewis Segal