In 1816, E.T.A. Hoffman published The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, a sinister fairy-tale intended for adults. This version included a nefarious godfather, horrific battle scenes between toy soldiers and rats, and indifferent, neglectful parents. Marie’s multiple visits to the Kingdom of Toys are nightmarish hallucinations.
Alexandre Dumas’ version of the story, published in 1844, made it happier and more appropriate for children; in addition to the introduction of sweets, loving parents, and a mysterious but benign godfather, Marie’s adventure is presented as a wonderful dream. Dumas also changed the protagonist’s name to Clara, the name of the original Marie’s favorite doll.
The publication of this lighter version inspired Marius Petipa, chief ballet master of the Russian Imperial Ballet, to commission a ballet for the story. Peter Ilyitch Tchaikovsky was asked to write the music and Lev Ivanov created the choreography. The first production of The Nutcracker was at the Maryinsky Theatre in December 1892 in St. Petersburg, Russia.
The ballet incorporates several cultural references of the time, including Mother Ginger, who originated from a well-known candy tin sold in Russia in the 1890s: formed in the shape of a woman wearing a large skirt, the tin opened at the bottom to reveal the candies.
The Nutcracker was especially important to choreographer George Balanchine, as he had matured from boy to man in this ballet. His first Nutcracker role was a mouse; at 15 years old, he played the Nutcracker/Little Prince role; and later the Mouse King, before portraying the Jester. The Jester’s choreography was his favorite, and he re-imagined it in his own version as the Candy Cane. Throughout his life, he continued to feel proprietary about the role: “Not bad” he once told a dancer, “but you know I did it faster.”
The Nutcracker is so fantastic for children – both those in the audience and on the stage – because it is about them. Balanchine felt strongly about giving children the opportunity to be on stage, seeing it as a vital part of training the next generation of dancers. He often incorporated children’s parts into his ballets, and The Nutcracker is the ideal example. Importantly, he paid much attention to making sure the children’s roles were age appropriate: The Angels are an excellent example, as they must remember only lines and formations instead of specific steps; another is the children at the Party, whose roles are mainly pantomiming and some simple dancing. Balanchine’s dedication to dance education is a view shared by Pennsylvania Ballet, which includes students from The School of Pennsylvania Ballet in many of its productions.
Though The Nutcracker is considered by many to be a holiday tradition, in Russia it is performed throughout the year; it was Balanchine’s Nutcracker that propelled the ballet to dominate Christmas in the United States. Pennsylvania Ballet has been performing The Nutcracker every year since 1968, making 2018 the 50th anniversary of the holiday tradition. The complete Balanchine version was first presented by Pennsylvania Ballet in 1987.