5 Stops on 'The Nutcracker’s' Road to Ballet Immortality

Discover some interesting facts about "The Nutcracker's" long history.
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Nutcracker Photo

(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Arguably the most popular ballet of all time, and a Christmas tradition the world over, classical composer Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky’s (1840–1893) The Nutcracker wasn’t always the smash hit that it is today. Here are a few interesting facts from its long history, which is far less pristine than the magical and snowy landscapes of its setting might lead you to believe.

#1: E. T. A. Who?

For a work as beloved and famous as The Nutcracker, the name of the author whose novella it’s based upon has been nearly lost to time. German writer, artist and music critic E. T. A. Hoffman (1776–1822) published The Nutcracker and the Mouse King in 1816. It tells a more darkly themed version of the Nutcracker story, in which young Marie Stahlbaum's oppressive parents forbid her from discussing her dreams, and at the end of which she does not return to her family, but escapes to live in a kingdom of dolls. Maybe it’s not surprising that, in the 19th century, such a subversively themed children’s book would have failed to win its author widespread fame, but Hoffman’s work has influenced the likes of Edgar Allen Poe, Charles Dickens and Maurice Sendak, author of Where the Wild Things Are. In fact, Sendak was eventually enlisted by the Northwest Pacific Ballet to design the costumes for their production of The Nutcracker, which opened in 1983 and sought to recapture the mood of Hoffman’s original.

#2: A Hollywood Ending

The Nutcracker Photo

An image of The Nutcracker tale. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Hoffman’s unsettling original was eventually adapted by French writer Alexandre Dumas (1802–1870). Published in 1844, Histoire d’une casse-noisette (aka The Nutcracker) tells what is considered to be a watered-down version of the tale, in which the central character eventually wakes up safe and sound beneath the Christmas tree in her family’s house, clutching the nutcracker toy around which her reverie was centered. Perhaps because of its more palatable Hollywood ending, this was the version chosen by Ivan Vsevolozhsky to be the basis of Tchaikovsky’s ballet. Even so, it’s possible that Dumas would have wound up as obscure a figure as Hoffman. But, luckily for him, he had a couple other writing projects published around the same time—The Three Musketeers (1844) and The Count of Monte Cristo (1845). Maybe you’ve heard of them.

#3: The First Performance of The Nutcracker Was Before the First Performance

In March 1982, six months prior to the first performance of The Nutcracker ballet, Tchaikovsky directed a concert for the Music Society in St. Petersburg, Russia. For it, he selected the eight best pieces from his Nutcracker composition. The music was so well received that the audience demanded an encore for each individual number. When the full-length version was performed later that year, things didn’t go so well (see below), and for almost a century after, the stripped-down version of Tchaikovsky’s composition was the best known and most often performed.

The Nutcracker Ballet Photo

A modern-day performance of The Nutcracker at the Opera and Ballet Theatre in Minsk. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

#4: The Big Flop

On December 18, 1892, The Nutcracker ballet premiered at the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg. Unfortunately for Tchaikovsky and Co., the two-act ballet was a critical failure. The choreography was deemed “confusing,” the dancers called “pudgy” and the stage design derided as “primitive,” not to mention that there was simply “not enough action” (according to one critic). But even Tchaikovsky himself didn’t seem to think much of it, saying in a letter to a friend, “in spite of all the sumptuousness it did turn out to be rather boring.” Sadly, Tchaikovsky would never see what an overwhelming success his ballet would one day become. He died of cholera the year after The Nutcracker’s premiere, at the age of 53.

#5: Balanchine’s Breakthrough

After the initial failure of The Nutcracker ballet, it didn’t see much action. It wasn’t until 1934 that it was performed outside of Russia for the first time, and the first American production didn’t take place until a decade after that. But even then it took some time to gain popularity, and it wasn’t until choreographer George Balanchine’s production at the City Center in New York in February 1954 that the ballet finally caught on. It has been performed in New York City every year since that time, and the Balanchine version has been the basis for several films and the majority of Nutcracker productions worldwide.