Cracking the Nutcracker (Ballet): 5 Fun Facts

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by Gabriel SaldanaWhen the calendar turns to December, sugar plum fairies fill the air while performance venues worldwide – large and small – echo the familiar strains of The Nutcracker Ballet. While humming a favorite Nutcracker tune in your head, nibble on these newsy nuggets:

  1. Who Invented Nutcrackers? While the ballet has Russian ancestry, the elaborately carved nutcracker that gives the ballet its name was likely first crafted in Germany, in the town of Seiffen. Located along Germany’s eastern border with the Czech Republic, in the Ore Mountains, Seiffen’s economy was originally centered around silver and tin mining. When ore deposits dwindled around the year 1700, many miners turned their wood carving hobby into a full-time enterprise; wooden toys became a popular export.
  2. Ballet’s Original Title was “Dances with Mice”? OK, that’s just a guess. In 1891, Peter Illyitch Tchaikovsky was commissioned to write music for Alexandre Dumas’s adaptation of E.T.A. Hoffman’s tale “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.” The first performance – staged in St. Petersburg a year later – was deemed a failure by critics and audience alike. One audience member described the battle scene’s choreography as confusing: “Disorderly pushing about from corner to corner and running backwards and forwards – quite amateurish.”
  3. By George! Balanchine Helps U.S. Catch On. Choreographer George Balanchine is credited with rejuvenating this show with his 1954 production for the NYC Ballet. Within a matter of years it was propelled into the mythic realm of American “holiday traditions” – joining Handel’s Messiah, “It’s a Wonderful Life” and the animated TV cartoon about Rudolph (the Reindeer, not Nureyev) to name a few. One of Balanchine’s changes involved casting more children, including in the key roles of Marie and the Nutcracker/Prince. This also had the unintended, but financially lucrative, consequence of ensuring more parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles would buy tickets.
  4. Nutcracker toolNutcrackers Circle the Globe. Starting in the late 20th century, The Nutcracker has become arguably the most widely performed ballet in the world, with Balanchine’s version helping spawn other adaptations. For example, the greater Bay Area of California alone will offer at least 10 different productions this month, ranging from a family-friendly “Nutcracker Sweets” to a Jewish interpretation.
  5. Over-Roasted Holiday Chestnut? In 2009, Washington Post dance critic Sarah Kaufman criticized The Nutcracker’s dominance in America’s ballet pantheon, blaming it for inhibiting ballet’s creative evolution. In part, she wrote:

“That warm and welcoming veneer of domestic bliss in The Nutcracker gives the appearance that all is just plummy in the ballet world. But ballet is beset by serious ailments that threaten its future in this country… companies are so cautious in their programming that they have effectively reduced an art form to a rotation of over-roasted chestnuts that no one can justifiably croon about… The tyranny of The Nutcracker is emblematic of how dull and risk-averse American ballet has become.”

How about you? Do you think this ballet is all it’s cracked up to be? Or what’s your favorite way to celebrate the holidays through the performing arts?

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