From Novella to Christmas Tradition: The Nutcracker Ballet

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A scene from Albemarle Ballet Theatre’s 2022 presentation of the Nutcracker. Photo: Allie Pesch.

The theme of toys who come to life has long been central to children’s literature, with examples as various as Pinocchio, Babes in Toyland, Raggedy Ann, The Indian in the Cupboard, The Velveteen Rabbit, Winnie the Pooh, and Toy Story. Transformation and redemption through love—as in Harry Potter—are also literary staples. E.T.A. Hoffman’s 1816 novella The Nutcracker and the Mouse King is an early, charming example of these themes. This imaginative and fantastical story was so entrancing that—after the success of his Sleeping Beauty ballet in 1890—Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) was commissioned by the Russian Imperial Theatre to compose a ballet based on it. He collaborated with Marius Petipa—whose choreography is still used in many productions today—to create a work of art so magical that it has become a classic staple of Christmas celebrations around the world. They created a work of art about miracles that is miraculous in itself. 

You probably know the basic story: at a Christmas Eve party in the home of the wealthy Stahlbaums of Nuremburg, Germany, young Clara is given a nutcracker by her godfather, Judge Drosselmeier—who is also a clockmaker and inventor. She immediately falls in love with the handsome nutcracker doll, dressed as a soldier with red jacket and tall hat. Hoffman wrote the story just after the conclusion of the Napoleonic Wars, so Clara’s brother Fritz’s most prized gift was a fleet of toy soldiers. Staying up late to play with her new friend after the guests have gone, Clara becomes caught up in a war between the seven-headed Mouse King and the army of toy soldiers, led by the Nutcracker. During the crux of the battle, Clara saves the Nutcracker’s life by throwing her slipper at the Mouse King. As a result of this act of love, the Nutcracker is released from his enchantment and transformed back into a handsome prince. In the second act, the Prince takes Clara by sleigh on a journey to his magical kingdom—providing an opportunity for much beautiful music and exotic, fanciful dancing representing various countries of the world. Although a nutcracker might not seem the ideal Christmas gift to today’s children, it is the very strangeness of this old-fashioned toy at its heart that lends the story its charm.

Prussian author Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann (1776-1822) was an influential figure in the 19th century Romantic movement. He found success as a writer, artist, and composer. His stories form the basis of Jacques Offenbach’s 1880 opera The Tales of Hoffman, and his story “Der Sandmann” inspired the 1870 ballet Coppélia. He admired Mozart so deeply that he changed his second middle name from Wilhelm to Amadeus. Sadly, Hoffman did not live to see the lasting popularity of his work. The Nutcracker Ballet loosely adheres to his novella, with a few exceptions. The protagonist is named Marie (Clara is one of her dolls) and is only seven years old; in most ballet productions her age is closer to 12. 

In the book, Godfather Drosselmeier tells Marie a story-within-the-story called “The Tale of the Hard Nut”—omitted from the ballet due to time constraints—which reveals how Drosselmeier’s nephew, Christian, was enchanted by Queen Mouserinks and turned into a nutcracker. To regain his true nature, he must perform various feats, including vanquishing her son, the Mouse King, in battle. Apparently, mice were a major problem in large 19th century houses! 

Marie has to sacrifice much more than her shoe to save the Nutcracker’s life—namely all her Christmas candy and her “sugar dolls.” The Mouse King keeps returning and demanding more from her or he will “bite the Nutcracker to pieces,” even her picture books and “pretty little dresses.” When she appeals to the Nutcracker for help, he asks for a sword, which Fritz supplies from a “retired colonel.” That night, the Nutcracker kills the Mouse King and brings Marie the seven crowns from its seven heads. In appreciation for her devotion, the now transformed Christian Drosselmeier takes Marie on a visit to the Land of Dolls, which he rules. Entering through the sleeve of her father’s fur traveling coat in the cupboard, they travel through Christmas Wood, Lemonade River, Gingerbread City, and Marmalade Grove to Marzipan Castle in the capital of Candytown. 

Hoffman’s description of the Candytown residents may have been the inspiration for the variety of international dancers in the ballet’s second act. “There were beautifully dressed ladies and gentlemen, there were Armenians and Greeks, [Arabs] and Tyroleans, officers and common soldiers, clergymen, preachers and shepherds and clowns, as many different kinds of people as there are in the world.” Marie’s parents scoff in disbelief at her report of these adventures. But at the end of the book, Drosselmeier’s living nephew visits the Stahlbaum house. When they are alone, he kneels down and thanks Marie for releasing him from enchantment—thus proving that her the battle actually happened. He asks for her hand in marriage, and she accepts. A year later, they are married, and she goes with him to become Queen of Candytown. At eight years old? Perhaps something has been lost in translation—but of course, this is a child’s fantasy. The ballet, by contrast, clearly treats her adventures as a dream. 

The two-act Nutcracker Ballet was first performed at the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg in 1892. It received grudging recognition, but it was not until it was performed in England in 1934 that it became known outside Russia. After the enormous success of its first U.S. production in 1944, the San Francisco Ballet has presented it every Christmas Eve since and throughout the winter season. The New York City Ballet’s 1954 production, featuring Maria Tallchief as the Sugar Plum Fairy, helped to elevate the work from obscurity into an annual Christmas classic and reliable box office draw. Tallchief (1925-2013) was a member of the Osage Nation, the first Native American to become a prima ballerina.

The Nutcracker Ballet has been choreographed by George Balanchine, Rudolf Nureyev, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and many others. I believe that Tchaikovsky’s gorgeous music accounts for the staying power of this classic as much as the fantastical story. The Waltz of the Flowers and the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy have become musical Christmas classics as popular as Deck the Halls and White Christmas. But what are sugar plums, you ask? Originally small, round, hard candies—usually not involving fruit—this term came to refer to all sweets, such as sugared almonds or marzipan. And if you ever happen to be in the Northwest U.S., be sure to visit the Nutcracker Museum in Leavenworth, Washington!

I recently had the privilege to attend an elaborate production of this beloved classic by Talmi Entertainment at the Paramount Theater. This touring company, featuring dancers “from over eleven ballet capitals, including Ukraine, Italy, Japan, Kazakhstan, Turkey, and more,” according to their website, also invites local children to audition as party guests, snowflakes, and mice—among them my grandchildren in the Charlottesville performances (nutcracker.com)! The set backdrops of a huge Christmas tree, sparkling snow scene, and royal kingdom were stunning.

You can still see this dazzling Christmas classic with Crozet’s own Albemarle Ballet Theater on December 15-16 at Waynesboro High School Theatre (www.abtdance.org) or with the Charlottesville Ballet on December 16-17 at the Martin Luther King Performing Arts Center (www.charlottesvilleballet.org). May your holidays be filled with music, magic, and imagination! 

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