Ballet, fantasy, children’s tale, romance and hope – all this and more summarises what The Nutcracker has come to mean to audiences all over the globe, who see the viewing of this Ballet as a Christmas tradition.
Written in 1810 by E.T.A. Hoffman, a German Romantic author, composer, artist, and writer of fantasy and fiction. Hoffman craved to disturb the trends of the time that were surrounded by logic and the search for a universal (scientific) truth, i.e., the Enlightenment. Hoffman created characters and a world, be it in his “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” or then “Sandman”, that blurred reality and challenged notions of balance and truth, of causality and probability. All his works continue to take the reader to a place of discomfort and intrigue, where the fantasy is wished into reality. The journey of the Ballet “The Nutcracker” embodies this and more.
The first attempt to create a Ballet based on Hoffman’s Nutcracker was put forth by renowned choreographer Marius Petipa, who in 1891 commissioned Peter Tchaikovsky to compose music for a french version of Hoffman’s tale, by Alexandre Dumas. The Ballet opened in 1892 a week before Christmas at the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, however the production did not receive rave reviews. It was completely and utterly trashed by audiences and critics alike. This is not to say that the Ballet was never performed again!
In 1934 The Ballet first travels outside of Russia, retaining the Tchaikovsky score, with a few changes in choreography. We see The Nutcracker being performed in England and by 1944 it has arrived on U.S. shores. In San Francisco we see the first true change that this Ballet will have, and that is its transformation through the influence, and choreography of George Ballanchine. This transformation completed itself in 1954, when George Ballanchine’s production of The Nutcracker is put on stage in New York, and it becomes an overnight favourite, loved and adored by audiences and critics alike. It is quite a turnaround for the Ballet, that has taken The Nutcracker through two choreographers, three nations and one composer – over 63 years – to put the final polish and shine on Hoffman’s gem.
Today, 123 years after Pepita’s version, and 60 years after Ballanchine’s re-interpreation, with Tchaikovsky’s score being a constant, The Nutcrackerhas come to embody Christmas for all of us. The triumph of the imagination over realism, the victory of good over evil, the celebration of the birth of something new, carrying hope even in the unknown. This to me is what Christmas is all about, hence what better way to say Merry Christmas for 45 Days of Dance Stories than presenting my favourite christmas creation, The Nutcracker. Out of all the productions out there, and versions put on stage, Maurice Sendak’s Seattle production by PNB is my favourite. Why? Bacuse I feel for the first time artistic direction in the hands of the man who gave us “Where the Wild Things Are” is a perfect balance for what I feel would have been Hoffman’s ethos. In support of this assumption I make, I give you two quotes, the first by Hoffman on his characters and the second by Stowell, Sendak;s collaborator for the PNB Nutcracker –
“Why should not a writer be permitted to make use of the levers of fear, terror and horror because some feeble soul here and there finds it more than it can bear? Shall there be no strong meat at table because there happen to be some guests there whose stomachs are weak, or who have spoiled their own digestions?”
― E.T.A. Hoffmann
― E.T.A. Hoffmann
“[Sendak] likes real things, you know, like monsters and children that cry and make demands, […Maurice and I thought what makes children happy is to be a little bit afraid, scared; [to] overcome things. And so that’s what Nutcrackerended up being: a story about a little girl and her trials and tribulations of growing up, facing life and romance. And is it a dream or isn’t it a dream? That’s how the ballet ends.”
In 2012 we lost Sendak to the realms that be beyond this one, and this year will be the last Sendak production of The Nutcracker that Seattlle has seen with the Pacific Northwest Ballet, as next year onwards the Ballanchine version will be back. For over 20 years Sendak, Hoffman, Dumas, Petipa, Tchaikovsky, and Ballanchine have been co-collaborators to give us Christmas Magic!
Here is a glimpse of the imagery in PNB and Sendak’s Nutcracker –
And here is my favourite piece of Sendak talking of his journey as a children’s illustrator and author, presented by the Rosenbach Museum & Library, which is the sole repository of Sendak’s original artwork.