The Nutcracker: The most popular ballet in the world | Theatre | Entertainment |
It’s official: The Nutcracker is the new Father Christmas. There are at least six productions on show this year, three in London and another three around the country, including Cardiff and Northampton.And they are the ones we know about.
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The magical tale of the little girl who is given a nutcracker that comes to life, that goes into battle between toy soldiers and mice and that ends with a visit to the Land of the Sweets is a perennial favourite.
With its famous score, its touching relationship between Clara and the Nutcracker and the sumptuous pas de deux at the end between the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Prince, it is the ballet that even non-ballet goers attend, beloved of children and balletomanes alike.
And it is now a staple of ballet repertoires across the world.
There are at least six productions on show this year (Image: Tristan Fewings/Getty Images)
The Royal Ballet perform theirs in the Royal Opera House, while during their London season English National Ballet perform it at the Coliseum and the Birmingham Royal Ballet’s is at the Albert Hall, as well as on home ground.
It is hard to believe that this score, the most frequently played ballet music in this country, was surrounded by controversy when first published.
The ballet is in two acts, which are in fact unconnected by a narrative thread, something numerous subsequent productions have tackled, but which caused uproar at the time.
The Nutcracker is set on Christmas Eve, one of the many reasons the ballet now has such a close association with Christmas, when the mysterious magician Drosselmeyer attends a party at the Stahlbaum’s house.
He shows them dolls who dance in a lifelike fashion and then presents the daughter of the household, Clara, with a Nutcracker dressed as a soldier, with whom she is enchanted.
The children are sent to bed but on the stroke of midnight, Clara creeps back downstairs, and in one of the most thrilling scenes in the ballet, the Christmas tree which dominates the sitting room begins to grow.
So does the Nutcracker, who is transformed into a young man (in the Royal Ballet’s production, he is in fact Drosselmeyer’s nephew, who has been put under a spell.)
CHRISTMAS’ FAVOURITE: Meaghan Grace Hinkis as Clara (Image: Tristram Kenton/ Royal Opera House)
At this point the toy soldiers come to life and, led by the Nutcracker, they go into battle with the mice.
Closing the first half of the work, their love duet is to one of the ballet’s composer Tchaikovsky’s most tender pieces of music.
The second, completely different half sees them transported to the Land of the Sweets, where the couple are welcomed by the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Prince.
After the Nutcracker tells them about their adventures, the couple watch dances from around the world, before the final pas de deux, including the famous Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.
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It is all a far cry from when it started out in Russia, over a century ago. The Nutcracker was first performed in St Petersburg in 1892 after Lev Ivanov choreographed the two-act work, a new piece for the Imperial Ballet Company.
He was heavily criticised after standing in for Marius Petipa, the Master of the Imperial Ballet Company who was taken ill shortly after rehearsals started.
The composer Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky was irritated by Petipa’s ideas, which Ivanov insisted on sticking with. Russia’s most famous composer was scornful of Ivanov’s desire to reach children, which colours every aspect of the work.
Then there was the problem of the second act. In the first act Clara is clearly growing into womanhood under the influence of the Nutcracker, but in the second act the focus shifts totally on to the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Prince, with the first couple little more than spectators at the show.
Marcelino Sambé as The Nutcracker and Anna Rose O’Sullivan as Clara (Image: Alistair Muir)
But many productions have found a way to deal with this. The British ballet director Peter Wright created two versions of The Nutcracker, one for the Royal Ballet and one for the Birmingham Royal Ballet, where he was for years the artistic director.
He involves the young couple in the dances in Act Two and in the Birmingham version Clara actually turns into the Sugar Plum Fairy, a device that has also been used elsewhere.
Other facets fell into place.
Tchaikovsky was delighted at the orchestra’s new percussion instrument, the celeste, on which he based the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, one of the highlights of the production. Even today that particular piece of dancing nearly always brings the house down.
Vadim Muntagirov as The Prince and Marianela Nuðez as The Sugar Plum Fairy (Image: Alastair Muir)
But initially, after a run of 14 performances, The Nutcracker was shelved completely and not seen by the public for another three years. It took even longer to appear in Moscow, in fact not until 1919,27 years after its premier in St Petersburg.
Nor did it meet with critical approval. The main problem was the lack of a link of continuity between the two Acts. “Mr Petipa took advantage of his rights to simplicity,” wrote a critic at the time. “In The Nutcracker there is no subject whatever.”
Yet another critical moan was that the ballet was for children. “All this children’s ballet is made in the manner of a child,” one complained. “The programme is pure child’s prattle.”
Tchaikovsky disagreed. “The ballet was too magnificent,” he enthused. “The eyes are weary from this luxury.”
The Nutcracker was first performed in St Petersburg in 1892 (Image: Alistair Muir)
But that very magnificence was a concern for Vladimir Telyakovski, director of Imperial Theatres. For him, the production was vulgar in its overdressing “…like fancy brioches from Fillipov’s patisserie.”
And the complete absence of a run through storyline also brought severe criticism from ballet lovers. The Nutcracker was also scorned as a theatrical production with no inherent meaning.
This was resolved, but never more successfully than in 1984, when Wright created the Royal Ballet’s production, which is performed to this day.
He used the work’s single interval to imagine Drosselmeyer transporting Clara to the Kingdom of the Sweets where, presumably as a thank you for saving The Nutcracker, he presents the world’s dances to her.
Magical tale of the little girl who is given a nutcracker that comes to life (Image: Alastair Muir)
Whereas the Act II dances had previously been classified as a “dream” with little or no flimsy references back to the first act, they are now, thanks to Wright’s good taste, a celebration.
And so we watch the enthusiastic Spanish Dance, the sexy Danse Arabe and much more, before the Grand Pas de Deux, one of the most famous duets in the classical ballet repertoires.
We are left with the certainty that somehow Drosselmeyer, who never leaves the stage, has the whole show in his keeping and we will surely see them all again.
But what is wrong in simply enjoying a night out with beautiful music and ravishing performers whose technical prowess alone raises the roof?
As for the younger elements of the audience, what could be more enjoyable than little girls and boys both giggling and rendered speechless by the action on the stage?