It’s that time of the year when little bears go for dessert to the theatre 🙂
As the first strands of that unforgettable music opened the winter scene, little bears were immediately transported the 19th century days of E.T.A. Hoffmann who wrote the original story, Alexandre Dumas who adapted it for the ballet and Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky, who composed the score for the ballet.
The fantastical second act – a confetti of divertissements – is a homage in dance to the 19th century’s most precious foodstuffs. Today, those divertissements may seem random, but look a little closer and you’ll find they’re united by a whimsical, rather scrummy theatrical plan.
This was the age when great wooden chests of tea swung over the bows of ships from China, when the aroma of coffee evoked dreams of Arabia, when candies were bestowed on only the most fortunate of Russian children at Christmas time. In 1892, when The Nutcracker premiered and the curtain lifted on the Kingdom of the Sweets, these were some of the gastronomic wonders that the Imperial Ballet brought to life.
Inspired by Hoffmann’s tale, the Kingdom of the Sweets was formed as a lusty representation of the toys and treats that every affluent St Petersburg family knew and loved. Food was the theme that the divertissements brought to life, beginning with the Spanish “chocolate” dance, which recalled the introduction of chocolate beans to Europe following the Spanish Conquest in South America. The sultry strains of the Arabian dance follow, evoking the warmth of the Middle East, where coffee was cultivated for centuries. Tea – represented by the sprightly Chinese dance – was traditionally the most recognisable victual in the ballet, and several choreographers incorporated tea-drinking gestures or even gigantic teapots into the variation.
Interrupting the banquet was originally a buffons or jesters dance (set to the stirring Russian trepak) and the Dance of the Mirlitons, with its delightful scoring for flutes. What is a mirliton, you ask? Confusingly, a mirliton is both a small sweet French cake and a type of musical instrument that produces “a coarse, reedy sound”. It was the popular toy instrument that the ballet’s creators originally had in mind, though at an early stage, according to author Robert Greskovic, Marius Petipa considered identifying the dance number with “cream pastries”. Yum!
Seen less often nowadays is the first sweets divertissement, featuring Mother Ginger (Mere Gigogne) and her clutch of playful Polichinelles. A character with roots in the commedia dell’arte, Mother Ginger usually appears in a comically oversize skirt from under which young children emerge to dance the part of the Polichinelle candies. The divertissement took inspiration from a well-known candy tin that sold in Russia in the 1890s, formed in the shape of a woman wearing a large skirt. Naturally, the tin opened at the bottom to reveal the bonbons inside.
Finally, following Tchaikovsky’s famous Waltz of the Flowers, the Sugar Plum Fairy makes her eagerly awaited appearance. This fairy is no glorified prune. The rounded sweets were a confectioner’s pièce de résistance,consisting of layers of sugar syrup skilfully hardened around a caraway or cardamom seed, or an almond. Confectionary historians have described the process as one of the most difficult and tedious to master – not for nothing does ‘plum’ mean all manner of good things.
One child who succumbed to the delights of this delectable cavalcade was a young George Balanchine, who danced in The Nutcracker as a student at the Imperial Ballet School. Like so many of his contemporaries, Balanchine grew to appreciate the miracle of sugar. In the heart of St Petersburg stood Eliseyevsky’s emporium, which dazzled the little Balanchivadze with its great high windows, its palace-like halls and opulent chandeliers. It boasted “sweets and fruits from all over the world, like in A Thousand and One Nights,” Balanchine remembered. “I used to walk past and look in the windows often. I couldn’t buy anything there, it was too expensive.”
(The shop still exists and is now called Kupetz Eliseevs Food Hall and under its current management it has been restored to its former glory to the finest of details.)
Two World Wars and a revolution later, he also bore memories of the horrors of starvation. Along with fellow Russian choreographer David Lichine, Balanchine would go on to create his own fabulous, mouth-watering vision of The Nutcracker. His 1955 production for the New York City Ballet replaced the mirlitons with marzipan shepherdesses and turned the buffons into candy cane. In 1958, Lichine, choreographing for London’s Festival Ballet (now English National Ballet) conjured roses atop a Christmas cake for the Waltz of the Flowers, and an interlude for children dressed as little cooks and waitresses.
Little bears like their Nutcracker sweet. Very sweet! With lots of chocolate, chocolate and coffee cake, tea cake, meringue cookies, cupcakes, lollipops….