The History of The Nutcracker

A EUROPEAN BEGINNING AND A TRIP TO A NEW WORLD

by Jeff Steiner

 Posted on October 4, 2018

The story for the Nutcracker Ballet was adapted from the book The Nutcracker and the Mouse King written by E.T.A. Hoffman in 1816. Music for the ballet was written by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and the first production was performed in 1892 at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia to mixed reviews. While Tchaikovsky’s score was widely acclaimed, the ballet itself was not an overwhelming success. The sophisticated audiences of the time perceived the use of so many children on stage as less than professional and found the second act dances as lacking a cohesive story line.

However, after the 1917 Russian revolution, many experienced Russian ballerinas and composers came to America and knowledge of the Nutcracker Ballet began to spread in the new world. These artists found a new creative freedom in America and began to adapt the ballet to fit their new home. This feeling of freedom to adapt the performance became one of the keys to the success of The Nutcracker in America.

Tchaikovsky’s beautiful score known as the Nutcracker Suite was another of the contributing factors to the success of the ballet in America. While The Nutcracker itself had not achieved critical acclaim in Europe, the music had fared much better and had become known and loved worldwide. Its popularity spread even more in America after Disney released Fantasia in 1940 featuring the music from the Nutcracker Suite. Fantasia was a big success and the way it linked beautiful classical music to animated themes generated huge appeal to American children and set the stage for The Nutcracker to take off nationwide.


The first performance of The Nutcracker in America was performed a few years later by the San Francisco Ballet on December 24th, 1944 and the timing for it was perfect. Fantasia had time to spread across America to where the music was now widely known. The long war in Europe had finally ended and many soldiers had returned home from Europe bringing German nutcrackers as gifts for their loved ones. The country itself was entering a period of prosperity and feeling a sense of optimism after the long dark times of the Great Depression and a world war. There was a need to celebrate and a longing for happier days. The Nutcracker seemed to fit that needed niche. Choosing to perform the ballet on Christmas Eve turned out to be a brilliant choice and The Nutcracker has since thrived as a holiday ballet.

The beginning of The Nutcracker as an American tradition is usually credited back to George Balanchine’s 1954 production with the New York City Ballet. Balanchine adapted the ballet to fit the times in America and The Nutcracker began to find success. “Balanchine’s The Nutcracker is a tribute to idealized middle-class family life,” writes (Catherine Gunther) Kodat. “Fathers dance with their daughters with gentle ceremony and decorous affection; mothers come to the rescue of sons left without a dance partner; children squabble and their parents smooth things over; and, most important, the pleasures of holiday feasting are presented unalloyed by working-class anxiety or upper-class decadence.” (Smithsonian).

The Balanchine Nutcracker was successful enough that the New York City Ballet performed it again the following year and it became an annual Christmas tradition for the company. The Nutcracker’s popularity spread even more when the Balanchine version of the ballet was aired on national television in 1957 and again in 1958. “Balanchine's television Nutcracker had enough fun in it for people who had not seen a ballet, and enough dancing in it to please the ballet lovers who watched it” (wiki).

The success of the Balanchine televised version and the popularity and familiarity of the music spread by Fantasia made The Nutcracker a widespread choice for other ballet companies to perform. Following in the footsteps of The San Francisco Ballet and the New York City Ballet, most ballet companies chose to hold their performances during the Christmas season and The Nutcracker soon bloomed as an economic boon for the American ballet world. Many ballet companies were able to tie in the performance with fundraisers or boutiques and were often able to fund their entire year from the proceeds brought in by The Nutcracker. The economic benefits helped The Nutcracker spread to even more companies and become even more widely known to where it is now a beloved part of the American Christmas tradition. The Nutcracker has truly found a home and success in America.

Stay tuned for Part 2, coming soon!