History of the Nutcracker

ETA Hoffman published The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, a frightening fairy-tale intended for adults in 1816. In 1844, French writer Alexandre Dumas adapted Hoffman’s version, making it appropriate for children. Maruius Petipa, master of the Russian Imperial Ballet liked Dumas' new version and transformed it into a ballet. Peter Ilyitch Tschaikovsky was commissioned to compose the score. Petipa’s assistant, Lev Ivanov, created the choreography. The Nutcracker debuted in St. Petersburg in December 1892.

Tchaikovsky’s music was an international hit and Walt Disney included it in his 1940 film, Fantasia, before a full-length version of the ballet appeared in the United States. San Francisco Ballet holds that distinction, presenting the work in 1944. New York City Ballet did not perform the work until 1954, when George Balanchine created a version based on his experiences performing the work in Russia.

Today, dance companies around the country perform versions of The Nutcracker.  The ballet is highly profitable and often pays for the rest of the company’s season. It’s fantasy elements—a magically growing Christmas tree and dancing flowers, mice, and candies—make for an accessible experience for children, who might be experiencing their first classical ballet and first classical music. Too, the large number of children’s roles provides performance opportunities for children from local ballet schools, both a rite of passage for young dancers and means of creating good community relationships. As generations of young dancers and audience members who fondly remember their own encounters with The Nutcracker take their children to the ballet in turn, a 19th century ballet becomes a 21st century holiday mainstay.

There are now hiphop, modern dance, cirque, and jazz versions of The Nutcracker, and these are now joined by family oriented holiday productions related to Dr. Suess’s The Grinch that Stole Christmas. Happy Holidays!

Photo: Emily Renee’ Photography (for the Morrison Family Y)

Mikale Kwiatkowski