Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Nutcracker Ballet

"[Music] reveals an unknown kingdom to mankind: a world that has nothing in common with the outward, material world that surrounds it, and in which we leave behind all predetermined conceptual feelings in order to give ourselves up to the inexpressible." — E.T.A. Hoffman
 And now it's impossible to talk about the legacy that Hoffman's Nutcracker has had without mentioning Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's ballet version. When you mention the Nutcracker story, this is what people think of first usually. (Unless they're crazy Hoffman nuts like me.)

Photo of the original 1892 production
The most famous bit of the ballet is Tchaikovsky's score. When the ballet bombed at first, a 20-minute suite kept the music alive until the ballet was revived, becoming annual traditions all over the world.

The Nutcracker ballet was originally in a double bill with Iolanta. Marius Petipa adapted Dumas' rewriting of the book for the ballet and also was the original choreographer. Tchaikovsky wrote the score to accompany it. It was not one of his fondest works.

The original production was staged in 1892, a week before Christmas. From what I can tell, the basic plot of the ballet as it is normally done was there, dictated by the names of the pieces of score. The children eagerly await the Christmas party, where gifts from Drosselmeyer and arrivals of many guests are the highlights. Clockwork people by Drosselmeyer and the Nutcracker are major points. Music highlights the cracking of nuts before a hostile Fritz breaks the Nutcracker. The girl, who was renamed Clara in the ballet, takes care of the Nutcracker and returns to the drawing room to see him at night.

Photo of the original 1892 production
Magic happens when it gets late as Drosselmeyer appears on the clock, and to accommodate the plot, Clara grows smaller, shown by the Christmas tree growing to an immense height. Mice and toys begin to fight, the Nutcracker leading the toys. The King of Mice (who, depending on what is possible for the producers, may have seven heads or just one highlighted by a crown or sash or something else) fights the Nutcracker, and almost overpowers him, but Clara throws her shoe at the King, and, depending on what the choreographer has decided, it inexplicably kills him, or allows the Nutcracker to turn the tables, killing the King of Mice.

Set design from the original 1892 production
In a wooded scene, the Nutcracker turns into a prince and he and Clara go to a land of sweets where the Nutcracker Prince recounts his story and then dancers depicting various sweets or drinks or spices dance for the Nutcracker Prince and Clara, usually climaxing with the hostess, the Sugar Plum Fairy, dancing with either her Cavalier or the Nutcracker. (In some productions, Clara takes the place of the Sugar Plum Fairy, sometimes even becoming that character.) In the ending, the Nutcracker Prince and Clara leave to continue their journey or to go home, or Clara awakes and the ending is left ambiguous as to whether it was a dream or not.

Set design from the original 1892 production
There have, of course, been many variations of the ballet over the past 119 years. Some keep to this basic format, like George Balanchine's famous versions. Others try to reimagine the story for various reasons. As the format of ballet doesn't allow for much exposition, these are more or less forced to portray what they can on stage. The story of Princess Pirlipat is almost impossible to tell in the ballet, though the Pacific Northwest Ballet attempted to do a pantomime version in the party with music not from the original suite.

Mother Ginger and her children, 1892 designs
Other versions have the story become a metaphor for Marie (or Clara, productions change the name as they want) going from a young girl to a young woman, to some very sensual interpretations. Matthew Bourne's Nutcracker's second act features the heroine trying to get the Nutcracker back from her fairyland romantic rival!

But when the story gets down to basics, it's a reasonably faithful adaptation of the story. Yes, there's a big jump from the battle to the defeat of the Mouse King, but given the storytelling limits of ballet, it works. And the music is just beautiful. It really captures the story and fits it perfectly. More information about variations on the ballet may be found here.

Original 1892 costume design
The ballet has become a holiday staple for ballet companies, all with some variants on the story and huge differences in choreography. Many large companies even have their productions professionally filmed and released on home video, television, or even films. I had two of the latter on video tape: George Balanchine's The Nutcracker featuring Macaulay Culkin as the Nutcracker Prince, and The Nutcracker: The Motion Picture by the Pacific Northwest Ballet, featuring set designs by artist Maurice Sendak. (These designs were retooled as illustrations for Ralph Manheim's translation of the original Hoffman book.)

So, as it might be tempting to dismiss the ballet as an overly popular rival to Hoffman's original story, it's a wonderful holiday tradition well worth preserving.


Sam A M said...

Wonder why Clara/Marie always has her name changed . . . ?

Interesting to note how almost all trailers for "the Nutcracker", when filmed as a ballet for TV/video, shows a lot more dancing than of the plot. May not always catch everybody's interest, but the story is captivating enough to make you watch it.

Now I want a copy of almost every "Nutcracker" film on DVD.

TIM BURTON has a version?!

Jared said...

Well, Sam, as it's a ballet, it's easier to convey visually than the plot.

Unfortunately, not all versions I'll be listing have been released on DVD. (Officially, anyway.)

And no, what you saw was a related video for a fan thinking Tim Burton could do the Nutcracker story justice. I'm not really sure if he could now. I think I'd prefer Guillermo Del Toro or someone else.

Bill Campbell said...

I've always been partial to the Maurice Sendak production. In the 80's, the Minnesota Ballet partnered with the Pacific Northwest ballet for a short time, and the Sendak version was brought to town a couple times. I loved seeing it live - unfortunately, that partnership didn't last very long!

Jared said...

Thinking on it now, considering Marius Petipa did the original choreography, perhaps he changed Marie's name to Clara due to his own name being similar?

Anonymous said...


I'm doing an essay on Tchaikovsky's ballet, and would you tell me where you got the sketched designs for the background in the ballet?

Jared said...

Wikipedia and the above linked page about different versions of the ballet.