The Nutcracker: The controversy of a classic

After having achieved resounding success with The Sleeping Beauty, composer Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was not satisfied with his work with The Nutcracker. The ballet, once again commissioned by choreographer Marius Petipa, was a Christmas production that toned down the darker tones of E.T.A. Hoffmann‘s (1816), The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.

However, when presenting excerpts of the song in a concert (the suite version) the public and critics approved, giving greater confidence to the demanding musician. The Nutcracker brings some of Tchaikovsky’s most famous melodies and is since the 1960s, when it regained popularity, one of the obligatory tracks for Christmas.

But the controversy is not really around the music, but who actually signed the choreography of the ballet, which premiered on December 18, 1892. Marius Petipa or his assistant and successor, Lev Ivanov? The two are credited, but legend has it that Petipa contributed little or nothing to the work.

As with Sleeping Beauty, Petipa commissioned the music for Tchaikovsky only without the melody. His guidance was so detailed that he defined the tempo and measure he wanted for each piece. However, as soon as he started work, in August 1892, Petipa became ill and had to be away. Ivanov, his assistant for seven years, took charge of the creation.

Apparently, the backstage was confusing because the first version of the ballet was not unanimous as the previous works. The first performance was far from successful. Some critics praised the details, and others hated it. The innovation of putting children dancing in the roles of children (a tradition that has continued since then) did not gain support. The battle scene was considered confusing and amateurish, the script that omitted parts of the original story was also the subject of complaints, as well as the transition from the real world to the magical one was described as “abrupt”. To make matters worse, the main dancer – who plays the Fairy – does not dance until almost the end of the ballet. Nor did the music, which was generally approved, elicit much praise.

It is no surprise then that The Nutcracker was “forgotten” until Alexander Gorsky made the first revision, in 1919. In it, the Fairy’s pas-de-deux was “given” to Clara and the Nutcracker Prince, apart from the children of assembly. This change has been copied in several productions to this day.

In 1934, The Nutcracker was staged for the first time in England, taking inspiration from the choreography of Petipa and Ivanov. Ten years later it arrived in the United States and soon became a “mandatory” Christmas production.

For many in the West, the “definitive” version is that of Georges Balanchine, first mounted in 1954. Maria Tallchief was the fairy and Tanaquil LeClercq got a spectacular solo in the Waltz of the Flowers. Balanchine’s version has been filmed (more than once) and reflects the choreographer’s vision of his childhood Christmases. It’s exciting.

The productions of The Nutcracker represent at least 40% of the annual income of all companies, as well as the bread and butter of many dancers who dance as guests in schools and other dance groups. The pandemic in 2020 had a hard impact on this scenario, but there are productions that can be seen online. And at least the 1993 version by the New York City Ballet is also on Netflix. Tradition and chain will not be broken.

An excerpt from Balanchine’s production to remember.


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