For the return of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker® to Lincoln Center this year, we are sharing the following story, written by the late critic Clive Barnes for New York City Ballet. Written in 2004 for the 50th Anniversary Season of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker, the essay details how New York City Ballet’s 1954 production of The Nutcracker, which was then largely unknown, became a turning point in the history of dance in America. New York City Ballet is thrilled to once again perform this beloved holiday classic now through January 2 for our audiences at the David H. Koch Theater.
That sometime New Yorker, the composer Gustav Mahler, called the closing movement of his Fourth Symphony “A Child’s Dream of Heaven.” It was a poetic image that somehow lodged in my heart, and one day I found myself instinctively applying it to that quintessential Christmas ballet, The Nutcracker, particularly perhaps George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker, for not every Nutcracker was born equal. But Balanchine’s version—particularly for New York kids and the parents they bring with them—really is a child’s dream of heaven, and, for many, an introduction into the entire world of dance.
It is a bewildering fact of ballet life that the work considered among the most famous, and certainly the most popular and influential, of all time, the 1892 Peter Ilyitch Tschaikovsky/Marius Petipa/Lev Ivanov Nutcracker, has had a desperately checkered past. It was not always the moneyed sugarplum at the top of the dance tree which it has almost smugly been for the past half-century.
The Nutcracker was the third and last of the great Tschaikovsky ballet trilogy, following Swan Lake (1877) and The Sleeping Beauty (1890). It had a difficult birth. It was planned as part of a double bill to consist of The Nutcracker and Tschaikovsky’s one-act opera Iolanta, and had libretto by Petipa based on Alexandre Dumas pére’s version of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s 1816 tale, The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. The collaboration between Petipa and Tschaikovsky was singularly close, with the choreographer providing the composer minute timing requirements for the custom-built score. But eventually Petipa was forced by health considerations to hand over the actual choreography to his assistant Ivanov, who faithfully followed Petipa’s carefully mapped plan.
Despite the distinguished score, the child-friendly (not only in its appeal to youthful audiences, but also in its intelligent use of student dancers) and attractive story, and Ivanov’s fluent choreography, The Nutcracker took a long time to establish itself in the repertory. In Britain, where Tschaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake had become part of the fabric of Britain’s Royal Ballet, The Nutcracker had been comparatively neglected, even though from 1950 onwards Anton Dolin’s Festival Ballet (nowadays the English National Ballet) had made it into a London Christmas tradition. In the U.S., a full-length Nutcracker had been staged in 1944 by Balanchine’s protégé, William Christensen, for the San Francisco Ballet, while a shorter version had even earlier proved popular, danced by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo.
But the turning point in the history of The Nutcracker came when, largely through the vision of Morton Baum, one of the officers of City Center, Balanchine was given the opportunity to stage a full-evening ballet, and he chose The Nutcracker, which premiered on February 2, 1954. And it was not only a turning point in the history of The Nutcracker. It was also a turning point in the history of City Ballet, and indeed the history of dance in America, and perhaps even in the whole Western world.
It was a bold move for Balanchine and the Company’s co-founder Lincoln Kirstein. City Ballet already had a reputation that placed it in the avant-garde of classical dance, and what might be regarded as a step back to a 19th-century tradition was risky (indeed the Company received a patronizing, even almost contemptuous review from The New York Times).
Yet Balanchine knew that there was a move back to the full-evening ballet, a move demonstrated by the popularity of the full-evening classics that the Sadler’s Wells (nowadays Royal) Ballet had been bringing to New York since 1949. City Ballet needed to compete on that level of size and scenic extravagance. So Balanchine, together with Kirstein and Baum, offered this Nutcracker. Had it failed financially, it is conceivable that it would have brought down the Company. Certainly it would have been an enormous setback, artistically as much as economically. Luckily it didn’t fail—although luck didn’t have so much to do with it as Balanchine’s canny foresight.
Balanchine’s Nutcracker was a popular hit from the start, and eventually it became the cash cow that not only kept New York City Ballet economically afloat but, by its example, actually made companies viable across North America. A few, such as Pennsylvania Ballet [now Philadelphia Ballet] and Miami City Ballet, dance Balanchine’s own version, but most have productions of their own; regardless, the Christmas takings of this one ballet are vital to stabilizing company balance sheets everywhere. Nor was the Nutcracker Christmastime phenomenon restricted to the United States, for the ballet gained in popularity (not to mention profitability) all over Western Europe.
The version of The Nutcracker we see at the New York State Theater (now the David H. Koch Theater) is a good deal different from the more homespun glory of that original City Center production of half a century ago. The main structure of the choreography has remained more or less intact. In the original 1954 version, Jerome Robbins staged the battle of the mice, while Balanchine was responsible for all the rest, including the careful preservation of Ivanov’s original mime for the Little Prince in the Second Act and the choreography for the “Dance of the Candy Canes,” both of which Balanchine had performed as a boy in St. Petersburg. But there have been quite a few smaller-scale changes over the years, particularly in the details and layout of the second act, the divertissements in “The Land of Sweets,” where, for example, the placement of the “Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy” has been switched around, and the role of her Cavalier has come, gone, and come again.
But probably the most noticeable change in the City Ballet production came on December 11, 1964, during the Company’s first year in its new permanent home, the New York State Theater (now the David H. Koch Theater). Now the opportunity was taken to give the ballet a thorough choreographic spring clean, and while Balanchine kept Karinska’s original costume designs (with revisions), he replaced the original scenery by Horace Armistead with spiffy new designs from Rouben Ter-Arutunian.
The essential beauty of this Balanchine Nutcracker is the manner in which it combines the Germanic 19th-century Biedermeier style and Hoffmann’s ambiguous mysticism together with both expansiveness of the Imperial Russian Ballet and the greyhound grace of Balanchine’s own City Ballet tradition. It is a combination that oddly enough enables a child’s dream of heaven, with its snowflakes and flowers, to double as a paradigm for contemporary ballet.