From Story to Ballet: Interesting History of "The Nutcracker" by Sheri Leblanc

Every holiday season, both the young and young at heart flock to see one of the world’s most famous ballets: "The Nutcracker." But where did the story behind "The Nutcracker" ballet originate, and how did a little wooden novelty become one of the world’s most recognizable protagonists?

"The Nutcracker" ballet is based on a story called “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” written by a German writer, composer, and critic known as E.T.A. Hoffman (E.T.A. Hoffman being his pen-name; his actual name was Ernst Theodor Wilhelm Hoffman). Hoffman wrote Romanctic stories of horror and fantasy, and “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King,” written in 1816, incorporates elements of both; indeed, the story combines love, violence, and the grotesque in a way that rivals the works of Byron and even Poe.

Hoffman’s Original Story

Those familiar with "The Nutcracker" ballet will be familiar with the story that frames “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King”; this framing narrative involves a little girl named Marie and her brother Fritz who receive a nutcracker from their godfather, an inventor named Drosselmeyer. Fritz plays too roughly with the toy and breaks some of its teeth, but the gentle Marie bandages it and stays up late to nurse it back to health. After everyone else has fallen asleep, Marie witnesses an extraordinary sight as the house is suddenly filled with mice who threaten Marie and the nutcracker, but the nutcracker and other Christmas toys all inexplicably come to life and fight back.

This is where the story begins to differ from the ballet version. Marie watches the battle between the mice and toys until she eventually faints, and the next morning her parents explain that she must have imagined or dreamed the event. Then Drosselmeyer tells Marie a story about a princess named Pirlipat who, after a bizarre series of events, is turned into a strange creature with a wooden head and white beard by a vengeful mouse queen. Drosselmeyer explains that his own nephew was the one who eventually cured the princess, but in the process, he himself was transformed into a similarly grotesque creature, thus becoming the nutcracker.

That night, the relentless army of mice returns, and for several nights afterward Marie and the nutcracker must fight them off. Eventually the mice are vanquished. Shortly after, Marie proclaims that she will always love the nutcracker in spite of his appearance, and the nutcracker turns back into who he really was all along: Drosselmeyer’s nephew, who was cursed to remain in his doll form until he found love. The two are married and depart to reign over the Doll Kingdom.

The Ballet Adaptation

Of course, this all seems quite convoluted when compared with the plot of the ballet. However, Hoffman’s version was streamlined by famed French writer Alexander Dumas in the 1844. Dumas called his version “The Story of a Hazlenut-cracker,” and in the 19th century, Director of the Imperial Theaters Ivan Alexandrovitch Vsevolojsky came up with the idea of adapting this version into a ballet. He approached choreographer Marius Petipa and composer Peter Tchaikovsky with the idea.

When "The Nutcracker" was first performed in Russia in 1892, it was poorly received. It would go though several revisions over the coming decades, and finally be re-imaginged in 1954 by famed choreographer George Balanchine, before becoming the international hit it is today. Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes presented a two act version of Swan Lake (1910) in which Nijinski danced a solo as Prince Siegfried to the music of the Sugar Plum Fairy. Ten years later, same company, same music, but this time used for the Lilac Fairy in The Sleeping Beauty. This also included the Danse Arabe and Danse Chinoise from "The Nutcracker" in the last act. Anna Pavlova toured the world with Snowflakes, choreographed by Ivan Clustine to music including Nutcracker’s snow scene. This is seemingly the first occasion in which a pas de deux was danced to this music.

In England, the first Nutcracker was mounted by Sergeyev for the Vic-Wells Ballet, a predecessor of the Royal Ballet, in 1934. Sergeyev had left Russia after the October Revolution of 1917 and mounted this version based on Stepanov notation scores of the Maryinsky production that he had brought with him. His untraditional contribution to this version was to cast the actress Elsa Lanchester in the Arabian dance. He had seen her perform Ariel in The Tempest and decided that he must have the “Dramateek lady.” Margot Fonteyn made her stage debut in this staging of "The Nutcracker" in April 21, 1934. She danced as a snowflake. In 1951, Sir Frederick Ashton premiered a one act version of "The Nutcracker" which countered critics of earlier productions who found the first act story uninteresting. He dispensed with the story altogether and made a plotless dance fantasy. When the Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo staged a one act version in New York, the prince and Marie grew up to adults who danced the grand pas de deux in Act 2. At one performance in Hollywood, future President Reagan’s daughter Maureen played the role of Clara.

The first complete Nutcracker was staged in London by the Vic-Wells Ballet in 1934, based on choreographic notation by Nicholas Sergeyev. Ten years later saw the first US version by San Francisco Ballet (1944) and another ten years brought George Balanchine’s blockbusting version for NYCB (1954), now staged every year by several US ballet companies. By the 1980s, 300 separate productions were touring the US.

Sir Peter Wright’s 1984 version of "The Nutcracker" for The Royal Ballet, still performed by the Company, stays close to Hoffmann’s original tale. It emphasises Drosselmeyer’s mission to find a young girl – Clara – who can break the curse imposed by the Mouse King on his nephew Hans Peter and thus restore him to human form. References to Nuremberg and German Christmas traditions are present in the settings, with a kingdom of marzipan featured in Act 2. Equally successful is his 1990 version for The Birmingham Royal Ballet, this one closer to the Russian tradition of having Clara double up as the Sugar Plum Fairy, but with a slight twist: it is Clara’s alter ego ballerina doll who turns into the Fairy.

Nureyev’s production for Pairs Opera Ballet has a clear emphasis on symbology and the subconscious: Clara wanders down the stairs at midnight to find her family and friends turned into rats and bats while Drosselmeyer transforms into a handsome prince.

Mikhail Baryshnikov‘s 1976 popular version for American Ballet Theatre turns the Christmas dream into a coming-of-age tale. There is no Sugar Plum Fairy nor Prince Koklush, the focus being Clara’s encounter with the Nutcracker Prince as orchestrated by her Godfather Drosselmeyer. As the ballet ends so does Clara’s fantasy.

In the United States, the Nutcracker was originally presented as a suite of highlights comprising some of the most famous musical selections from the full-length ballet. These include the “March of the Toy Soldiers,” the “Waltz of the Flowers,” and the various dances representing different cultures and foods, which make up much of the ballet’s second act. Led by William Christensen, The San Francisco Ballet performed the first American full length production of "The Nutcracker" ballet in 1944, and since then, unabridged productions have become a holiday theatre tradition. Here are a few of the most notable U.S. Nutcracker productions.

* The New York City Ballet. Perhaps the classic iconic American production of the full-length Nutcracker ballet belongs to the New York City Ballet, choreographed by the late George Ballanchine, according to the Petipa version from St. Petersburg. Complete with an enormous growing Christmas tree, falling snowflakes, and a sleigh that flies across the stage to take Carla and the Nutcracker Prince away at the end of the Second Act, this version, performed in New York’s Lincoln Center, is one of the iconic American Nutcracker productions.

* The San Francisco Ballet. In addition to having bragging rights for being the first U.S. unabridged Nutcracker production, the San Francisco Ballet offers an extravagant stage setting: hundreds of thousands of dollars of scenery and handmade costumes, along with a cast of more than 175 dancers.

* The Pacific Northwest Ballet. Here’s a new take on an old theme: "The Nutcracker" ballet production of the Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle has stage sets and costumes that take their inspiration from Maurice Sendak’s popular children’s books.

* Boston Ballet, The Boston Ballet’s version of the Nutcracker features some twists on the traditional production. The stage setting shows Clara dreaming that she is mouse-sized. As the props get bigger, Clara seems to shrink, and she witnesses the battle between the toy soldiers and the mice from the vantage point of a mouse-sized human. A balloon whisks Clara and her prince into the second act, where they are treated to extravagant performances celebrating dance and, of course, candy, at the Palace of Sweets.

* Houston Ballet. Any production of the Nutcracker has its share of humor, what with Drossylmeyer’s goofy gifts and the war between the mice and the soldiers. But the Houston Ballet kicks it up a notch, turning the normally staid introductory party scene into a series of mini comedies, and opening Act II with flying chef-angels on hand to concoct the confections.

About Sheri Leblanc:

Sheri Leblanc is a retired professional ballet dancer, 3rd generation ballroom dancer, choreographer, part time instructor who divides time between Louisiana and California. Sheri inherited her love of dance from her grandmother and her cousin, a famous dancer/actress named Virginia McMath, aka Ginger Rogers and she strivea to help preserve the history and art of dance. Dancer, performer and choreographer in different facets including conventions in New Orleans and Los Angeles, national commercials and musical theatre. 

Sheri has choreographed works for the University of New Orleans, Tulane Summer Lyric, Tulane Junior Lyric, Rivertown Repertory Theatre, Le Petit Theatre, Jefferson Performing Arts Society, and FourFront Theatre. She is recognized by the National Foundation for the Advancements of the Arts, the Louisiana State Arts Council and Gambit Magazine’s “Big Easy” Award.

Sheri's blog Reflections in Sequins and Satin came about out of a love of writing and reflecting on dance, personal experience, people in dance history - anything that inspires her.