The Nutcracker is the world’s most famous ballet and a Christmas staple, especially in the United States. Nutcracker productions account for more than a third of major ballet company’s annual ticket sales.
The ballet is also a favorite of regional, local, and student ballet companies. Furthermore, The Nutcracker has been immortalized via various films and television programs.
The Nutcracker is based on E.T.A. Hoffman’s The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. The music was written by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and is generally considered his most popular work.
The ballet premiered Dec. 18, 1892 in St. Petersburg, Russia. The dancing was choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov.
Reviews for the premiere performance were mixed. Many critics panned the dancers and the choreography. Tchaikovsky score was better received but even it had it detractors.
Tchaikovsky had taken the best melodies from his score and created The Nutcracker Suite, Op. 71. This suite kept the ballet alive between its debut in 1892 and the time it became a tradition for U.S. ballet companies.
The suite was performed nine months before the premiere of the ballet and was an instant hit.
A truncated version of ballet was first performed outside of Russia in 1927 in Budapest. The first full-length production of The Nutcracker outside of Russia took place in 1934 in England.
The abridged version first came to America in 1940. It was staged by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo for audiences in New York City.
The first complete performance of The Nutcracker in the United States occurred Dec. 24, 1944 by the San Francisco Ballet. It was a huge success and helped establish a Christmastime tradition in the Bay Area.
By the way, the tradition of performing the complete Nutcracker ballet began in the 1960s.
Although strongly associated with Christmas, The Nutcracker has little to do with actual holiday. The only real connection The Nutcracker has to Santa’s big day is the ballet is set on Christmas Eve.
The Nutcracker’s plot, as well as some of its characters’ names, may differ from production to production, but the overall gist of the ballet is usually the same.
A young girl named Clara, sometimes Marie, receives a nutcracker doll during a large party held on Christmas Eve.
She falls in love with the doll but her brother breaks it. The doll is then fixed by the mysterious man who originally gave it to her, Drosselmeyer.
Later that night, Clara sneaks down to the Christmas tree to check on her nutcracker. As she does, the clock strikes midnight. The mouse king and his army appear.
The nutcracker comes to life and leads an army of toys that eventually defeat the mice. Clara helps.
The Nutcracker turns into a prince and takes Clara to the Land of Sweets. There, they meet the Sugar Plum Fairy and celebrate the prince’s victory in battle.
The ballet’s ending also differs from production to production. Usually, the ballet ends with a waltz and then Clara and the prince wave goodbye to the inhabitants of the Land of Sweets.