The creation of the popular seasonal ballet “The Nutcracker” is one of departures and returnings.
The dance was originally performed in words, a fairy story created by in 1816 by a popular German romantic-era writer of supernatural tales, E.T.A. Hoffmann. His “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” deals with a young woman’s magical encounter with a Christmas gift, a soldier nutcracker.
Since Hoffmann’s stories are often dark and sinister (young girls meeting men-like rats in the dark!), French popular novelist Alexandre Dumas, author of “The Count of Monte Cristo” and “The Three Musketeers,” adapted it into a more family-friendly version in 1844.
It was the lighter and more commercial version that later attracted Russia’s Imperial Theater director Ivan Vsevolozhsky, who decided to bring it to the stage and reteam the artistic collaborators of the successful story ballet “Sleeping Beauty.” The two were choreographer Marius Petipa and composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky.
The composer, however, was reluctant and agreed only when he was assured the theater would likewise premiere a work he thought was more important, the opera “Iolanta.” Petipa became ill and choreographer Lev Ivanov took his place.
“The Nutcracker” ballet premiered on December 6, 1892, to poor notices. The music was considered too symphonic for a ballet. There was lack of complexity and cohesion, and it seemed more for children.
While the work continued to be performed in Russia and the Soviet Union, the ballet was considered a minor piece and was little known in Western Europe, except for connected excerpts from the second act, “The Nutcracker Suite.”
The first full Western Europe production of the ballet was in 1934 in London. Former Imperial Theater dancer and theater manager Nicholas Sergeyev, who left Russia in 1918, choreographed by using notes that he had made and taken with him.
The music preceded the ballet in the United States. While it was sometimes performed in concert halls, it reached mass audiences in 1940 when Walt Disney’s film “Fantasia” used animated fairies, flowers, and mushrooms to dance to the suite.
Four years later the American “Nutcracker” tradition started when San Francisco Ballet’s William Christensen produced the first full version. His work was informed by a discussion with expatriate Russian dancer Alexandra Danilova and choreographer George Balanchine (soon to emerge as one of the world’s most important choreographers and theater artists).
Balanchine, who performed several roles with the original choreography in St. Petersburg, then produced his own version of the ballet in 1954 for his New York City Ballet. Balanchine not only established an American production that could claim direct roots to the original but brought the ballet into American living rooms when he adapted his production for a television special in 1958. This historic presentation of a ballet televised for a mass American audience was narrated by popular television performer — and mother in the “Lassie” show — June Lockhart, assuring a large viewership.
It’s one of those beguiling twists — a ballet based on a dark tale that involves a battle between a rodent and a nutcracker is brought to the stage by an unenthused composer and replacement choreographer, receives poor reviews, and then becomes one of the most popular dance theater presentations in the America.
Dance critics estimate that almost half of “The Nutcracker” performances are in the United States, adding that it is the most performed work by dancers and the only work performed by some companies. Additionally, dance companies and many schools find the production important to their financial operations.
The show’s allure is that it deals with childhood, families, and communities. The psychological or mythical aspects of the piece are also effective: Clara leaves her family, passes through a dark world of danger, mystery, and masculine extremes (a wood soldier and mouse king) before emerging into a world of sweetness and romance. Additionally the international flavor of the famous dance suite — Russian, Chinese, Arabian — allows audience members to connect or feel connected. Talk about E pluribus unum.
While it is not clear how many U.S. productions are actually done in a year (more than 300 were reported decades ago), there are facts about the longest continuous running ones. The leader is the 1951 production by Ballet West in Utah, also choreographed by William Christensen. Balanchine’s 1954 version comes in second, but, since he shared his choreography with several other dance companies, his is the most prominent.
In New Jersey the American Repertory Ballet holds the record — an astounding 50 years. Yet the production has continued with choreography variations. Some of the original choreography was by the founder of the company, originally the Princeton Ballet Society, Audree Estey, who directed the school and dance company from 1963 to 1982. She was followed by Judith Leviton (to 1986), Dermot Burke (to 1992), Marjorie Mussman (1993), Septime Weber (1999), Graham Lustig (2010), and now Douglas Martin, with each new director transforming the production.
While it is natural for choreographers and directors to depart from the original design and add their own spirit and phrasing to a production, Martin was inspired to return portions of Estey’s original design into the production.
By doing so Martin reconnects the work with a spirit that has moved for the past few hundred years from a story by a German writer and found itself welcome in Princeton, New Jersey, where the production promises to keep returning.