Along with chestnuts, turkey and Carols from King's, Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without The Nutcracker. It has become a staple part of the festive season and one of the joys of any performance is in watching the excited reactions of children to what is often their first exposure to the art form.

Gary Avis (Drosselmeyer) in the Royal Ballet's Nutcracker
© Bill Cooper | Royal Opera House

The ballet received its première at the Mariinsky Theatre on 18 December 1892, part of a double-bill with Tchaikovsky’s opera Iolanta. It was not an immediate success – indeed, Iolanta initially fared much better, although its star has since waned. The composer wrote to his brother, Anatoly “The production of both was magnificent, the ballet even too magnificent. The eyes weary from this luxury.” One dance critic dismissed it as: “All this children’s ballet is made in the manner of a child! The programme is pure child’s prattle!”

Ivan Vsevolozhsky had commissioned the double bill after the enormous success the year before of The Sleeping Beauty – probably Tchaikovsky’s greatest (and certainly his most symphonic) ballet score. The choreographer for the new ballet was once again to be Marius Petipa and he chose E.T.A. Hoffmann’s 1816 story The Nutcracker and the Mouse King as the subject – or, more accurately, an adaptation by Alexandre Dumas père (Histoire d'un casse-noisette). In Hoffmann’s original, Marie Stahlbaum's favourite toy, a nutcracker given to her by her mysterious godfather Drosselmeyer, comes alive on Christmas Eve. It defeats the evil, seven-headed mouse king in battle and then takes her to a magical kingdom.

Hoffmann’s is a dark, sinister tale, with a long flashback narrative called The Tale of the Hard Nut. In this story of Princess Pirlipat and Madam Mouserinks, it is explained how Drosselmeyer’s nephew fell victim to a curse and was turned into a Nutcracker. Much of this darkness was excised from the programme Petipa wrote for Tchaikovsky, though the mysterious Drosselmeyer and the mouse king should still send a frisson up the spine. Wayne Eagling's English National Ballet’s production gives the mouse king a skeletal head.

English National Ballet
© Photography by ASH

In the event, Petipa was unable to complete the ballet, and the choreography was finished by Lev Ivanov. However, Petipa wrote a detailed plan of dance and mime scenes. For example, his instructions for “The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” in the grand pas de deux: “32 bars of staccato in 2/4. In this music it is as if drops of water shooting out of fountains are heard. End with a very fast 24 bars”. Tchaikovsky’s music for this solo employed an instrument new to most audiences: the celesta. Legend has it that the composer was desperate to keep the instrument ‘under wraps’ for fear of other composers pinching the idea, but he had already used it in his symphonic poem The Voyevoda, the year before.

The Nutcracker contains some of Tchaikovsky’s most memorable music, especially the character dances of Act II, recognised by those who’ve never even seen the ballet; the “Trepak”, the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy”, the “March” and the “Dance of the Reed Flutes” are all part of popular culture thanks to their use in television adverts and film soundtracks, not least Disney’s Fantasia… who can hear the “Chinese Dance” (Tea) without visualising mushrooms comically bowing and shuffling around? Yet its most powerful music comes in the climax to each act: the transformation of the Christmas tree and the journey through the pine forest in Act I contain superb music and are a gift to a production team; the Adagio opening to the grand pas de deux in Act II is remarkable, Tchaikovsky demonstrating what can be done with a simple descending G major scale!

Balanchine's Nutcracker
© Paul Kolnik | New York City Ballet

The ballet was criticized for being lop-sided… nothing much happens in Act II (had these people seen The Sleeping Beauty?!) and the lead ballerina doesn’t do anything until the climax of Act II. Some companies get around this by combining the roles of Clara and the Sugar Plum Fairy – Alexander Gorsky’s Bolshoi production of 1919 was the first to do so.

Tracing how the ballet’s success grew can be informative. In 1911, for example, Anna Pavlova used the final scene of Act I to create her own ballet Snowflakes, making the “Journey through the Pine Forest” a pas de deux, an idea often taken up by choreographers since.

Vasily Vainonen’s Mariinsky production of 1934 cast an adult dancer in the role of Clara, and augmented the role of Drosselmeyer. He was also the first to conclude the ballet with the idea that the events were all part of Clara’s dream. This popular production is still performed:

It was with George Balanchine’s 1954 production for New York City Ballet that the tradition of performing The Nutcracker every year grew across the United States. Balanchine kept to the spirit of the Petipa/Ivanov original, with a few tweaks. He added in an entr’acte originally composed for Act II of The Sleeping Beauty for the transition between the party scene and the battle (see at 24'07" below). And in a nod to Hoffmann’s tale, he introduced a nephew for Drosselmeyer, who later appears as the Nutcracker prince. The Sugar Plum Fairy’s solo opens Act II, while the Prince’s solo tarantella gets the chop

Balanchine’s version has been performed by the company every year since its première. There is a truly magical transition to the Land of Snow in Act I and the children fly back home in a sleigh, casting a trail of glitter behind them .

Peter Wright’s Royal Ballet version (1984, revised in 1999) also recreates this Drosselmeyer/ nephew relationship, the nephew – Hans-Peter – then becoming the prince. In a touching epilogue, Clara has the realisation that it wasn’t a dream and Hans-Peter returns to Drosselmeyer now that the spell has been broken.

Contemporary takes on the ballet – such as Mark Morris’ The Hard Nut and Matthew Bourne’s Nutcracker! (staged as part of a double-bill with Opera North of Iolanta to celebrate the works' centenary) demonstrate that Tchaikovsky’s ballet continues to cast its spell over choreographers as well as audiences.