Every holiday season, The Nutcracker ballet is performed in countless choreographed versions, including New York City Ballet's annual presentation of George Balanchine's revered production. But the ballet wasn't a success upon its premiere, and Tschaikovsky himself would have been surprised by its longevity. "It's far weaker than Sleeping Beauty," he said. "In spite of all the sumptuousness it did turn out to be rather boring."
The concept was originally suggested to him in 1882, but nine years went by before a commission inspired him to start composing. This initial reluctance may have been due to anticipation of another flop like Swan Lake, whose debut was a fiasco thanks to horrendous choreography and conducting; or The Sleeping Beauty, where audiences were unprepared for the score's symphonic scope.
Tschaikovsky wasn't given the bleak, original tale by E. T. A. Hoffmann, "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King," but a much gentler adaptation into a children's story version, "Casse-Noisette" by Alexandre Dumas père. The great choreographer Marius Petipa‹senior ballet master of the Russian Imperial Ballet‹provided Tschaikovsky with the rhythm, tempo, and even the number of measures for each dance; for instance, Petipa instructed, "The Christmas tree grows and becomes huge‹48 bars of fantastic music. The nutcracker is transformed into a prince‹one or two chords."
While composing The Nutcracker, Tschaikovsky traveled to Paris and discovered the celesta (invented by Auguste Mustel in 1886). He realized instantly that its "divinely beautiful tone" was the perfect sound to portray the Sugarplum Fairy. Because he was fearful that Rimsky-Korsakov or Glinka might use the celesta first, he presented the now-familiar Nutcracker Suite to audiences in Moscow and St. Petersburg in March 1892, before completing the full ballet. Nine months later, on December 17 in St. Petersburg, the ballet's premiere (featuring students) was finally given, conducted by Riccardo Drigo, but by the following Christmas, seven weeks after Tschaikovsky's death in November 1893, it had already been replaced as the Maryinsky Theatre holiday presentation by Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel.
It took The Nutcracker many years to make the journey outside Russia. London's Sadler's Wells (now known as The Royal Ballet) produced it in 1934. Walt Disney animated sections of the Suite in the 1940 film Fantasia, four years before the first American performance, by San Francisco Ballet. Balanchine's original production for New York City Ballet opened as the new Company's first full-length work on February 2, 1954. It was performed next in December 1954 and has been seen every holiday season since. (Balanchine revised the ballet into its present version for the Company's first season in the New York State Theater at Lincoln Center in 1964.)
In Balanchine's production, Marie's magical journey from a warm Christmas setting in a German home is a simple, appealing adventure which resonates powerfully with the audience. But deeper meanings, both sociological and musical, are joined together by Balanchine's remarkable understanding of the story's curious history. Balanchine had felt the work's magic firsthand at the age of 15, when he danced the role of the Nutcracker Prince in 1919 after being coached by dancers from the original production. In addition, as with all of his choreography, his work on The Nutcracker was informed by his deep understanding of music and the shape and structure of a given score; his most intense desire, he claimed, was to make audiences "see music and hear dancing."
Balanchine began by visualizing the longer, more structured pieces in the first act and the shorter numbers in the second act as a contrast between the formality of the adult (real) world and the wonder of a child's (dream) world. Balanchine brilliantly followed Tschaikovsky's clues‹often four measures of repeated phrases followed by an accent or a tempo change‹to shape his movements. You can see this effect clearly as the boy guests play leapfrog, in the pastiche of ballet moves by Drosselmeier's mechanical dancers, and especially by the Act II specialty dances, in which each musical cue allows a surprising physical variant. Watch the jagged gestures of The Waltz of the Snowflakes, and you can see that every pulse, every intricate motion emanates directly from the score. Perhaps the highlight is the Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy, in which the perfection of the steps on pointe are all dictated by the inflections of the music, and the movement changes always come from an alteration in the rhythmic pattern.
Although Balanchine created a wealth of innovative scenic ideas, he retained many of these from the original choreography, whose tradition always remained his artistic foundation. But he also brought the story a little closer to Hoffmann; for instance, he made the mice scary enough to alarm small children.
Over the years, innumerable thousands have thrilled to the magic of this perennial favorite. The combination of charming story, magnificent music, and inspired choreography, brought to life by a brilliant troupe, will continue to be as synonymous with the holidays as the Christmas tree that suddenly soars to the sky. One musician confided that playing the score for all 46 performances can become a little wearisome, but then quickly admitted to having the same reaction as audiences: "Every holiday season I fall in love with it all over again."
Tom Di Nardo is the arts writer for the Philadelphia Daily News.