The Nutcracker by Jennifer Fisher
Copyright © 2012 Dance Heritage Coalition Page 1
Created in 1892, during a golden age of classical ballet in Russia, The Nutcracker might have remained one of Tchaikovsky's lesser-known ballets if not for its virtual immigration to the United States. The first Russian critics found plenty to dislike, though they did praise parts of the choreography by Lev Ivanov, when the ballet was presented at the Imperial Theatre in St. Petersburg. The plot was thought too child- centered and implausible, given that it centers on an ordinary Christmas gift that leads to a journey through glittering fantasy lands; and there were thought to be too many decorative special effects. In the United States, however, these very qualities appealed to an aspirational, democratic nation that was still culturally young. After the first evening-length American production at the San Francisco Ballet (1944, by Willam Christensen) and then the influential New York City Ballet version (1954, by George Balanchine), the annual Nutcracker phenomenon took off across North America, providing a training ground for generations of dancers, choreographers and audiences. It also gave new life to a neglected ballet. Along the way, The Nutcracker earned a kind of honorary American citizenship. Some American Nutcrackers keep the original German setting of the 1917 E.T.A. Hoffmann short story from which the libretto was liberally adapted (by Marius Petipa, who wrote the directions to Tchaikovsky before handing over the choreography to Ivanov). Other New World choreographers decided that a Christmas celebration and fantasy could take place in whatever town produced it, so that the first act party-goers might be doing a highland fling or salsa, reflecting traditions of many American immigrants. Weaving connections with communities across the country, Nutcracker has proved so financially successful that ticket sales often bankroll an entire ballet season. But cash rewards are not the only reason for Nutcracker love-the landmark Balanchine version proved that a money-making ballet featuring fun for
children could also be classically rigorous and rapturously beautiful. Although Anna Pavlova had toured the U.S. in the early 20th century with a ballet called "Snowflakes," using Nutcracker music, two very different abbreviated 1940 versions laid more significant groundwork for the annual Nutcracker phenomenon. The Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo criss-crossed the country with a popular one-act Nutcracker suite (selections from the ballet arranged by Alexandra Federova) in their repertoire. Starting the same year, American audiences could also see the Disney film Fantasia, with a whole section of animated flowers and falling leaves swirling to Nutcracker selections. For audiences unfamiliar with classical ballet, the popular Ballet Russe and Disney's animated version of dancers provided an unthreatening introduction to the aesthetics of the art form. As early as...