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#Throwback Thursday: The Nutcracker

Today's #ThrowbackThursday focuses on everyone's favourite Christmas ballet: The Nutcracker.

Though productions of The Nutcracker differ from company to company, the basic story remains much the same. The ballet starts on Christmas Eve, with a party at the Stahlbaum household. Clara and her friends play with their new toys, but are interrupted by the arrival of Clara's godfather, the magician Drosselmeyer. A talented toymaker, he has brought the children gifts for Christmas. The gifts include a clown and a ballerina, who delight the children.

Drosselmeyer gives Clara a Nutcracker doll, but her brother Franz accidentally breaks it. Clara becomes heartbroken. When everyone has gone to bed, Clara sneaks back downstairs to check on her Nutcracker. As she reaches the doll, the clock strikes midnight, and Drosselmeyer appears atop the Christmas tree. Mice begin to fill the room, and the Nutcracker grows to human height. Clara finds herself in the middle of a battle between tin soldiers and life-size mice, led by the mouse-king.

The Nutcracker leads the soldiers against the mice; Clara distracts the mouse-king by hitting him with her slipper, allowing the Nutcracker to wound him. The mice retreat and the Nutcracker transforms into a prince. Snowflakes begin to fall, signalling the arrival of the Snow Queen.

Act II begins in the Land of Sweets, ruled over the Sugar Plum Fairy until the Nutcracker's return. He tells the story of how Clara saved him from the mouse-king, and a celebration starts. Sweets from all over the world dance for Clara, including chocolate from Spain, coffee from Arabia, tea from China, and candy canes from Russia. The Waltz of the Flowers preludes the Grand Pas de Deux of the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier. A final waltz is performed by all, before the Sugar Plum Fairy ushers Clara onto a sleigh and back to her home.

The Nutcracker was commissioned by the Director of the Imperial Theatres, Ivan Vsevolozhsky, after the success of The Sleeping Beauty in 1890. The new work was a collaboration between Pyotr Tchaikovsky, and the choreographer Marius Petipa. The two-act ballet's libretto was based on E.T.A Hoffman's The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, through an adaptation by Alexandre Dumas. As he had for The Sleeping Beauty, Petipa gave Tchaikovsky extremely detailed instructions for the composition of the music.

It premiered on 18 December 1892 at the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre as a double-bill evening, with the ballet partnered by Tchaikovsky's last opera, Iolanta. The original choreography has been debated; Petipa most definitely began choreographing the work before he fell ill. His assistant Lev Ivanov was brought in to finish the ballet. Contemporary accounts credit the ballet to Petipa; later Russian sources insist it was Ivanov. The premiere was conducted by Riccardo Drigo, and starred Antonietta Dell'Era as the Sugar Plum Fairy, Pavel Gerdt as the Cavalier, Stanislava Belinskaya as Clara, Sergei Legat as the Nutcracker Prince, and Timofey Stukolkin as Drosselmeyer. Unlike modern productions, in the original the children's roles really were played by children. Belinskaya and Vassily Stukolkin (who played Fritz) were students of the Imperial Ballet School.

Stanislava Belinskaya as Clara and Vassily Stukolkin as Fritz, with Lydia Rubtsova (left) as Marianna

Unfortunately the original premiere was not declared a success. Dell'Era, who as the Sugar Plum Fairy allegedly received five curtain calls, was also called 'podgy' by critics. Olga Preobrajenska, who played the Columbine Doll (later the Ballerina), was called 'completely insipid' by one critic and praised as 'charming' by another. Alexandre Benois called the choreography of the battle scene in the first act 'confusing'. Much of the criticism picked on the fact that the children danced the lead roles, and the ballerina did not appear until the end of the second act. Tchaikovsky's score, on the other hand, could not be praised enough.

Olga Preobrajenska as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Nikolai Legat as the Cavalier

In 1919, Alexander Gorsky staged a production of the ballet, eliminating the characters of the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Cavalier. Instead he gave their dances to Clara and the Nutcracker, who were played by adults instead of children for the first time. The ballet was first performed outside Russia in 1934, when Nikolai Sergeyev staged his own production after Petipa's choreography. The Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo staged their own version in 1940, and both the San Francisco Ballet and the New York City Ballet have their own traditions of performing the ballet at Christmas. It is arguably the most famous ballet of all, and is a well-cemented part of the Christmas tradition in America.

Here's the San Francisco Ballet's version:

And the New York City Ballet's, choreographed (of course) by George Balanchine:

Thanks for reading!

- Selene

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