Imagine the winter holidays without The Nutcracker. No swirling, on-stage snowstorm. No glowing Christmas tree, growing to impossible heights. No giant mice mincing around the stage as they battle pint-sized troupes of toy soldiers. And no strains of Tchaikovsky echoing through shopping malls and on endless television commercials, advertising everything from Huggies diapers to performances of the ballet itself.
The artistic directors of most American ballet companies wouldn't dream of depriving their audiences of the annual Nutcracker run. But only five or six decades ago, few people in this country had heard of the ballet (though some were acquainted with its score from a segment in the Disney film Fantasia). While he wasn't the first choreographer to stage the ballet in the United States, George Balanchine is credited with turning The Nutcracker into what is unquestionably the best-attended ballet in existence.
"Balanchine's was really the production that established the ballet as such a holiday tradition," says Roy Kaiser, Artistic Director of Pennsylvania Ballet. The Company is one of only a few with rights to present the Balanchine version, which the choreographer created for his own New York City Ballet in 1954. "The ballet is part of our culture now," Kaiser continues. "In this country, there is not a quality company of any size that would exist without The Nutcracker. It's become synonymous with the holidays."
As a boy attending the Imperial Ballet School in St. Petersburg, Russia, Balanchine appeared in several Nutcracker roles from the Mouse King to the Prince. The ballet was first presented on December 18, 1892 at the famed Maryinsky Theatre. Based on E.T.A. Hoffman's story "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King," the ballet then known as Casse-Noisette had choreography by Lev Ivanov and music by Tschaikovsky. The composer, who was simultaneously working on the opera Iolanthe, was less than thrilled with his own efforts: at first.
"And now it is finished, Casse-Noisette is all ugliness," Tschaikovsky wrote in 1892. But as time passed, he changed his mind. "Strange that when I was composing the ballet I kept thinking that it wasn't very good but that I would show them [the Imperial Theaters] what I can do when I began the opera. And now it seems that the ballet is good and the opera not so good."
The Nutcracker in America
The first full-length, American production of The Nutcracker was staged by William Christensen for the San Francisco Opera Ballet in 1944. Christensen had never seen the ballet, and reportedly had extensive discussions with both Balanchine and ballerina Alexandra Danilova, a Balanchine colleague and schoolmate. When Balanchine decided to undertake a production of the ballet a decade later, he was thinking big.
The Nutcracker was the first full-length and most elaborate work he had staged for New York City Ballet. The company was then performing in cramped conditions at New York's City Center. But Balanchine insisted on lavish costumes and sets for this new work: in particular, the tree. It cost $25,000, a fortune at the time. City Center chairman Morton Baum was angry about the expenditure.
In an interview with writer Nancy Reynolds, Balanchine said of Baum, "He told Betty [Cage, the company's general manager], 'Stop that fool. George, can't you just do it without the tree?' I said, 'The ballet is the tree.'"
The Nutcracker was an immediate hit. But it wasn't until City Ballet moved to its roomy new headquarters at Lincoln Center in 1964 that the ballet became the phenomenon it is today. A special pit constructed in the stage floor of the Koch Theatre (then called the New York State Theatre) houses a tree that grows so high it looks as if it will skim the top of the proscenium. Other enhancements were made to showcase the kind of elaborate set pieces and stagecraft that Balanchine recalled from his childhood.
Soon, ballet companies like Pennsylvania Ballet were presenting Nutcrackers of their own. For all of them, the ballet has proven to be not just an enduring audience favorite, but a vital source of income. "I would love to know just how much Balanchine calculated this, whether it was a great marketing thing in his mind at the time," says Kaiser. "Because there is nothing else in our repertory, or in any other ballet company's repertory, that comes close to generating the kind of revenue that Nutcracker does. There is just nothing that compares."
But it's not all about ticket sales. The Nutcracker is, in Kaiser's mind, a major work of art. There is, first of all, the way the tale unfolds. "It's a very easy story line to follow, and Balanchine tells it very clearly," he says. "The way he uses children is brilliant. I love that Marie and the Prince are played by children, not by adults playing children."
Then there is the music. "It's one of the most brilliant scores ever written," Kaiser enthuses. "We take it for granted because we hear it everywhere, but it's beautiful. And we're really lucky in Philadelphia because we have the Philadelphia Boys Choir singing in Act I during the Snow Scene. Most companies do it mechanically, but we have the real thing. Even though it's a brief section, it's wonderful to see them in their red blazers and hear them singing live."
Like many fans of Balanchine's canon, Kaiser is consistently amazed by the beautifully logical choreography for the Act II "Waltz of the Flowers." "It is about as near to perfection as you can get," he says. "The way the choreography brings the music alive is just brilliant. And when something is that good, even if people can't put their finger on why: they just know it's great."
Anne Levin is a freelance writer for Princeton Magazine, The Times of Trenton, US1, and several other publications. Photo: Paul