This classical ballet was originally written by E.T.A. Hoffman and adapted by Alexandre Dumas Père. The original ballet was choreographed by Marius Petipa and the music was written by Tchaikovsky. The music itself immediately became popular. In fact, it became so popular that a Walt Disney World ice skating production called Fantasia used the music. Interestingly, Tchaikovsky discovered an instrument called a “celesta” from Paris, which looks a small upright piano and has a high pitched bell sound. The Nutcracker would be the first major production that used this unique instrument. The instrument celesta and the Sugar Plum Fairy had a more intimate meaning to Tchaikovsky. The heavenly sounds and heaven-like dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy in Act 2 is a tribute to his late sister who died before he composed the ballet.
The Nutcracker ballet consists of a little girl named Clara who lives with her mother, father, and brother named Fritz. During a Christmas party, Clara receives a Nutcracker from her godfather Drosselmeyer. As her parties guests go home, she falls asleep with the Nutcracker in her hand. When she wakes up, she witnesses the Nutcracker come to life and fight with the Mouse King, the antagonist of the play. She is then whisked on an adventure to the Land of Sweets and meets the other creatures like Chinese Tea, Russian Candy Canes, Marzipan, and Mother Ginger and her gingerbread.
In the early years of its production, the play was highly criticized. The scenery and costumes were described as “tasteless,” and the dancer who played the Sugar Plum Fairy was deeply criticized. A critic said, “The Nutcracker cannot in any event be called a ballet. It does not satisfy even one of the demands made of a ballet.” Surprisingly, however, Czar Alexander III of Russia loved the ballet.
The first performance of the ballet was held in the imperial Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia, and the first ballet performed out of Russia was in England in 1934. The first performance was done by ballet dancers of the San Francisco Ballet directed by its artistic director William Christensen in 1944 on Christmas Eve.
The ballet gained increased popularity as a Christmas production after about one hundred years. It just happened that a number of ballet companies perform it a lot during Christmas. It became popular as a holiday tradition when George Balanchine modified some characters from the Nutcracker and performed it with the New York City Ballet during 1954. TIME Magazine said that the New York City Ballet’s production of the Nutcracker earned the New York company a stout $80,000, but by week’s end, the public had bought out all announced performances, earning the company even more money.
The Nutcracker ballet plays a big role in dance for children because it sometimes is the first exposure to classical music they experience. In the end, the Nutcracker is a timeless classic that has lasted throughout the ages. It has introduced many young children and older people of all ages to the magical Land of Sweets and the heart of Tchaikovsky and Petipa.