'The Nutcracker' Endures
A look back at the ballet's journey from 19th century Russia to Lincoln Center.
December 03, 2012
Alicia Alonso and Igor Youskevitch perform in the American Ballet Theatre
production of The Nutcracker in 1947.
Few passages in classical ballet—or any music, for that matter—are as transporting as those of The Nutcracker, whether it is the bells-and-winds introduction to the “Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy,” the lilting strings of “Waltz of the Flowers,” or the hurried pandemonium of the Russian dance “Trepak.” The ballet, based on an 1816 short story by E.T.A. Hoffman and set to music by Peter Ilyitch Tchaikovsky and choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, premiered in St. Petersburg, Russia, on December 18, 1892. Although there have been countless versions since, the basic narrative tells the story of a prince turned into a nutcracker who saves a young girl from an evil mouse king before bringing her to a land of sweets. The full ballet was not performed in the US until the mid-1940s, but it quickly became one of the most popular works in the canon. “With its joyful Yuletide atmosphere and its emphasis on youthful delights, The Nutcracker quickly became part of the North American Christmas, as if it had always been there,” Jennifer Fisher writes in Nutcracker Nation: How an Old World Ballet Became a Christmas Tradition in the New World of the ballet’s boon years in the 1960s. “The ballet’s visual impact seemed perfect—festive greenery, gifts, and wintry scenes in the first act, followed by a tinseled fantasy land in the second.” The ballet has brought Yuletide sentiment to stages across the world for generations, from small regional theaters to the American Ballet Theatre’s performance of George Balanchine’s legendary version at BAM Howard Gilman Opera House, taking place December 7 through 16. Over the years, The Nutcracker has remained a Christmastime tradition, carrying audiences away to places of whimsy and wonder... which is what the holidays are all about.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY GJON MILL/TIME & LIFE PICTURES/GETTY IMAGES