Going to see a local production of The Nutcracker ballet is a holiday tradition for many families. Surprisingly, watching this old-fashioned entertainment is a relatively new idea.
Based on a fairy tale
The ballet, with famous, original music by Russian composer Peter Tchaikovsky, was not originally written for the stage. It’s based on a fairy tale by E.T.A. Hoffman published in 1816 in the tradition of the brothers Grimm…in that it’s extremely grim. It’s much different from the well-known ballet. It’s about a teenager named Marie who falls in love with a nutcracker doll she meets in her dreams. After he defeats a seven-headed Mouse King, he brainwashes Marie to come live with him in his imaginary world forever.
More palatable for children
In 1844, Alexandre Dumas — who wrote The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers — adapted Hoffman’s tale to make it more palatable to children. Reportedly, he came up with a sanitized version when some kids at a Christmas party tied him to a chair and demanded he tell them one of his famous stories. Dumas published it, and that’s the version that became the inspiration for the ballet.
Tchaikovsky not really interested
The Russian Imperial Theatre hired Tchaikovsky and dance director Marius Pepita to conceive The Nutcracker as a ballet. Tchaikovsky wasn’t all that interested, but the Theatre promised that if he did it, they’d do the ballet as a double-feature with his long-simmering passion project, Iolanta.
The Nutcracker debuted just before Christmas to a sell-out crowd in St. Petersburg, Russia. Some critics thought it was okay, while most found it “tedious” and “confusing.”
Defected from Russia
The Russian Revolution put a serious damper on Russian high culture (such as ballet), and dancers defected to the U.S. and through Europe, taking The Nutcracker with them. After a couple of decades in obscurity, the ballet debuted in Budapest in 1927, London in 1934, and in the U.S. in 1944 at the San Francisco Ballet.
The most famous element of the ballet is its music, which has entered the Christmas standards canon. The reason most people know it so well: Fantasia. The experimental 1940 Disney movie that set animation to works of classical music was a massive hit, and it popularized Tchaikovsky’s score.
The ballet itself didn’t really catch on as a holiday event until the ‘50s. George Balanchine took control of the New York City Ballet, and in 1954 added his own choreography to the show. Most U.S. productions still use Balanchine’s choreography today.