Nussknacker Redux 

A condensed history of The Nutcracker ballet

The Nutcracker is arguably the most famous and popular ballets performed today. Most of us recognize Tchaikovsky's score--or at least "The Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy"--even if some of those numbers get confused with animated dancing mushrooms from the Fantasia movie. But beyond the simple, joyful entertainment this ballet delivers is a convoluted and interesting history that has little resemblance to the story most of us know.

In the first of many incarnations, what would eventually became the familiar ballet began as "The Nutcracker and the King of Mice" (in the original German, "Nussknacker und Mausekönig"), was a story by Prussian writer E.T.A. Hoffmann, published in 1816 as part of a volume of fairytales for children. Like many such tales at the turn of the 19th century, Hoffmann's stories shouldn't be confused with the touchy-feely, utterly nonthreatening pap deemed suitable for the half-pints of today (Barbie Swan Lake, I'm looking at you). "Nussknacker" was a fevered, sinister tale, more likely to keep the kids up than put 'em to sleep.

Born in 1776, Hoffmann was a jurist, unremarkable composer (he changed his middle name from Wilhelm to Amadeus in homage to Mozart), a painter and, later in his life, a writer of fantastic tales. Hoffmann was also quite possibly disturbed and his stories were dark, unsettling and uncanny--populated with devils, doppelgangers, blurred lines between reality and fantasy, paranoia, sinister strangers and psychological drama. And in fact, his story, "The Sandman," was the illustrative heart of Sigmund Freud's essay on the theory on the basis of uncanny perceptions--that feeling that what "ought to have remained secret and hidden has come to light"--a pervasive theme in Hoffmann's stories. The titular sandman was a folktale threat to children who refused to sleep, but in the story, he is also an alchemist character and the father/creator of the automaton that bewitches and maddens the narrator. The story's doppelgangers, coincidences and living death of both the narrator and the robotic woman all fit under the heading of "uncanny."

Similarly, Hoffmann's "Nutcracker" involves an automaton of sorts--the Nutcracker doll given to young Marie Stahlbaum by her Godfather Drosselmeyer (a mysterious, distant old bachelor capable of creating lovely little mechanical worlds to delight and frighten the godchildren, and Hoffmann's insertion of himself into the story). There is also an indistinct line between what is real and what isn't, and the story unfolds in a way that always doubles back upon itself, evident in young Marie's dreaming of the Nutcracker, and the Nutcracker as a toy but also as a sentient being in his own right, but also further as a nephew of Godfather Drosselmeyer, who himself actually made the Nutcracker toy. Things are further twisted up with the story-within-a-story, "The Hard Nut," wherein the Nutcracker's origins are revealed and the reason for the Mouse King's animosity, too. Then Marie later meets Drosselmeyer's nephew. Is he real or not? Is there or isn't there a Nutcracker? Confused? That's Hoffmann.

Hoffmann was a progenitor of the German Romantics, so small wonder "The Nutcracker" had to be watered down in order to be palatable to fine arts audiences. If Hoffmann's uncanny original were made today, few parents would feel the story suitable.

When Ivan Alexandrovitch Vsevolojsky, director of Russia's Imperial Theaters, proposed a collaboration between choreographer Marius Petipa and composer Peter Ilyitch Tchaikovsky in the wake of their success with another ballet, The Sleeping Beauty, the story he had in mind was "The Nutcracker of Nuremberg," based on a translation and retelling of Hoffmann's tale by another famous figure of the 19th century, Alexandre Dumas. The author of The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers was quite successful in his time, but also lived in high style that required him to continue writing in the wake of his novel success in order to support himself. In his later career, Dumas reworked into French many of the stories of non-French writers.

In Dumas' version of the tale, the story was transfromed from dark and byzantine into a confectionary called "The History of a Hazelnut Cracker." Dumas reworked the story into a what would be considered a more proper children's tale by shortening it and taking out the darkest, most confusing elements. The story-within-a-story, "The Hard Nut" was omitted from his version and the journey into the land of sweets elongated from little more than a footnote in Hoffmann's story into a large part of the ballet's substance.

The story appealed neither to Tchaikovsky nor Petipa and Petipa's resolution wasn't entirely satisfactory, either. To make the story more suitable for dancing, provide an upbeat libretto and give the dance its proper spectacle, Petipa came up with the Sugarplum Fairy and the opulent setting of the Kingdom of Sweets, effectively banishing both Marie and Godfather Dosselmeyer to secondary roles. But then Tchaikovsky wasn't satisfied with Petipa's reworking, which he felt took away the strength of the story.

The Nutcracker premiered in December of 1892 at the Maryinksy Theater in St. Petersburg. The critics savaged the ballet--the whole production took a metaphorical beating, and the music even more than the ballet itself. But even so, The Nutcracker has been performed and reformed ever since. Its choreography has been reworked, changed, added to and excised in many variations since the original ballet. Music was added in, taken away, the story and characters recast in various ways to compete for audiences and current tastes.

The year 1944 saw the first North American performance of The Nutcracker, by the San Francisco Opera Ballet. In 1958, choreographer George Balanchine, who had danced in this ballet himself some decades earlier in Russia, debut his own choreography of the ballet with the New York City Ballet, and Balanchine's choreography has come to be considered The Nutcracker's definitive staging. Most people today who have seen The Nutcracker have likely seen the Balanchine version.

Interestingly, one of the many subsequent variations on the ballet is Kent Stowell's 1983 production. The production's sets were designed by well-known children's author and illustrator Maurice Sendak. This version was an attempt to restore The Nutcracker to the original "mad spirit of [Hoffmann's] mad story," as Sendak puts it in the subsequent Nutcracker book, itself a fresh translation of the Hoffmann text by Ralph Manheim and illustrated by Sendak. It's a wry chance that one of the most successful children's illustrators of recent history should have been so integral to restoring Hoffmann's story to its delightfully unchildlike roots.

Many parents will treat their children to a first trip to this lovely, glittery holiday ballet this holiday season, and many families will see The Nutcracker without any notion or curiosity about the story's origins. But it might be interesting to dig a little deeper, keeping weird old Hoffmann in mind while watching the ballet, detecting its delicious dark depth.

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