A Kingdom of Sweets, a fairy-tale transformation, adorable dancing kids, sumptuous costumes and music as tantalising as Christmas itself — it’s easy to see why holiday classic The Nutcracker is an audience favourite that’s often billed the world’s most performed ballet.
Tonight little bears are mesmerised by snowflakes, clowns, dancing rats! and sugarplum fairies in the Royal Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker…
… from their own Kingdom of Sweets 🙂
It is Christmas Eve, and the Stahlbaums are having a marvellous party. Drosselmeyer the Magician amazes everyone with his magical dolls, who come to life and dance for the guests. At the end of the party Drosselmeyer hands out presents for all the children, including a Nutcracker doll for Clara, the daughter of the house.
That night, Clara creeps downstairs to check on her precious gift. As midnight strikes, magic is unloosed and the Nutcracker comes alive to fight with the Mouse King. Clara saves him by throwing her slipper at the Mouse King – and the Nutcracker is transformed into a handsome prince.
The Prince takes Clara to the Kingdom of Sweets, where the grateful inhabitants, led by the Sugarplum Fairy, perform a series of delicious dances to delight Clara. Afterwards, the Prince whisks Clara home and she wakes up at the foot of the Christmas tree – but was it really all a dream?
The story for The Nutcracker was adapted from E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Nussknacker und Mausekönig (The Nutcracker and Mouse King), a dark fairytale written in 1816. The original ballet, choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, in fact followed a more lighthearted reworking of the story by the French author Alexandre Dumas. Marius Petipa and Tchaikovsky had previously created the hit ballet Sleeping Beauty, so their new collaboration drew a sold-out audience to its premiere at St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre in December 1892. The reception was poor with both the public and critics considering the ballet a failure. Still, the Tsar at the time was a fan, so it stayed in the company’s repertoire. Tchaikovsky died less than a year later, not knowing what a huge international success the ballet would later become.
Today, The Nutcracker is ubiquitous in December, performed every year (especially in North America). This year, the West Australian Ballet premiered The Nutcracker to a sold out season.
Few characters in ballet are more renowned than the Sugarplum Fairy. People who’ve never been to any ballet, let alone The Nutcracker, have heard of her. The Sugarplum Fairy’s dances are the entertainment’s pinnacles. Her solo catches the quality of dulcet icing that’s right for her name; the music is led by the bell-like celesta.
Tchaikovsky is known for countless classical blockbusters — Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty, Piano Concerto No 1, the heartbreaking opera Eugene Onegin and the bombastic 1812 Overture are just a few. Still, his Nutcracker score has become one of his most famous compositions, in part thanks to Walt Disney, who used the composer’s condensed, concert-length Nutcracker Suite for his early animated movie Fantasia.
The overture is as tantalising as Christmas itself, the music for the early household scenes as warm and inviting as freshly buttered toast, while those Act 2 “diverts” – along with the Sugarplum Fairy’s famous variation – are little gems that corruscate with character, colour and often instantly recognisable melody. But there are even greater musical treasures elsewhere: the Snowflakes, the Act 1 pas de deux and (supremely) the soaring crescendo that accompanies the transformation scene, a passage Tchaikovsky is said to have pilfered from an original draft of his own Sleeping Beauty.
People flock to see The Nutcracker because it is as much a part of the Christmas tradition as Santa Claus, appealing even to those who aren’t ballet fans but know the story and Tchaikovsky score.
A production of The Nutcracker can bring in anywhere from 40% to 45% of a ballet company’s revenue. Those little mushrooms, snowflakes, clowns, dancing rats and sugarplum fairies are the main reason some ballet companies can put other shows at all.