For 123 years, Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker has entertained Christmastime audiences, and today is an important part of every American ballet company’s season.
The Nutcracker didn’t reach America until 1940, when the Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo performed an abridged version. Credit for the first complete American performance goes to the San Francisco Ballet, whose 1944 production was such a success that the work has been included in their season every year since. Other companies soon followed suit, and today The Nutcracker is an indispensable Holiday tradition.
Consider its uniqueness: has there ever, in the history of civilization, existed another performance work — theatrical, symphonic, operatic, dance, cinema — that year after year draws rapt audiences ranging in age from preschoolers to octogenarians? Why do we love The Nutcracker so much?
Probably not because of the plot. The original story, published in 1816 by E.T.A. Hoffmann, was a dark and morbid tale, and in 1844 Alexandre Dumas (author of The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo) created his own child-friendly adaptation. Tchaikovsky used it as his model. In Act I, the Christmas Eve celebration at the Stahlbaum house builds to a climax: Clara watches breathlessly as the toy Nutcracker kills the Mouse King. As in all good fairy tales, the Nutcracker then turns into a handsome Prince and whisks Clara away to his kingdom, where they presumably live happily ever after.
But wait — there’s more! In Act II, Tchaikovsky abandons all storyline to make space for ballet. Stylized dances whimsically entertain Clara and the Prince. Then the serious business begins, with the obligatory Pas de deux and the solo dances that follow. So this is what the Stahlbaum’s do on Christmas Eve?
The story may have baffled the audience at the ballet’s 1892 premiere, but they loved the music. Tchaikovsky responded by creating The Nutcracker Suite from the Overture and the dances of Act II, and it was a hit. The music carried the magic, even without costumes, sets, lighting, or dancers. This is Tchaikovsky at his sparkling best, and this music has kindled creative fires in the minds of thousands for over a century.
Just watch the faces of little children as the Christmas tree grows. Snowflakes dance in cities where snow never falls; flowers waltz in the dead of winter. Young dancers take the stage with seasoned professionals; orchestras leave the lights of the stage for the anonymity of the pit. Once a year, in our darkest month, magic warms our hearts.