Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Nutcracker Ballet


      The Nutcracker (Russian: Щелкунчик, Балет-феерия, Shchelkunchik; French: Casse-Noisette, Ballet-Féerie), is a two-act ballet, originally choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov with a score by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. The libretto is adapted from E.T.A. Hoffmann's story "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King". It was given its première at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg on Sunday, 18 December 1892, on a double-bill with Tchaikovsky's opera, Iolanta.
     Although the original production was not a success, the twenty-minute suite that Tchaikovsky extracted from the ballet was. However, the complete Nutcracker has enjoyed enormous popularity since the late 1960s and is now performed by countless ballet companies, primarily during the Christmas season, especially in the U.S. Tchaikovsky's score has become one of his most famous compositions, in particular the pieces featured in the suite. Among other things, the score is noted for its use of the celesta, an instrument that the composer had already employed in his much lesser known symphonic ballad The Voyevoda. 
      After the success of The Sleeping Beauty in 1890, Ivan Vsevolozhsky, the director of the Imperial Theatres, commissioned Tchaikovsky to compose a double-bill program featuring both an opera and a ballet. The opera would be Iolanta. For the ballet, Tchaikovsky would again join forces with Marius Petipa, with whom he had collaborated on The Sleeping Beauty. The material Petipa chose was an adaptation of E.T.A. Hoffmann's story The Nutcracker and the Mouse King by Alexandre Dumas père called The Tale of the Nutcracker. The plot of Hoffmann's story (and Dumas' adaptation) was greatly simplified for the two-act ballet. Hoffmann's tale contains a long flashback story within its main plot entitled The Tale of the Hard Nut, which explains how the Prince was turned into the Nutcracker. This had to be excised for the ballet.
      Petipa gave Tchaikovsky extremely detailed instructions for the composition of each number, down to the tempo and number of bars. The composer did not appreciate having to work under such constraints and found himself reluctant to work on the ballet. The completion of the work was interrupted for a short time when Tchaikovsky visited the United States for twenty five days to conduct concerts for the opening of Carnegie Hall and composed part of it in France.
      The first performance of the ballet was held as a double première together with Tchaikovsky's last opera, Iolanta, on 18 December [O.S. 6 December] 1892, at the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia. Although the libretto was by Marius Petipa, who exactly choreographed the first production has been debated. Petipa began work on the choreography in August 1892; however, illness removed him from its completion and his assistant of seven years, Lev Ivanov, was brought in. Although Ivanov is often credited as the choreographer, some contemporary accounts credit Petipa. The performance was conducted by Riccardo Drigo, with Antonietta Dell'Era as the Sugar Plum Fairy, Pavel Gerdt as Prince Coqueluche, Stanislava Belinskaya as Clara, Sergei Legat as the Nutcracker-Prince, and Timofei Stukolkin as Drosselmeyer. The children's roles, unlike many later productions, were performed by real children rather than adults (with Belinskaya as Clara, and Vassily Stukolkin as Fritz), students of Imperial Ballet School of St. Petersburg.
      The first performance of The Nutcracker was not deemed a success. The reaction to the dancers themselves was ambivalent. While some critics praised Dell'Era on her pointework as the Sugar Plum Fairy (she allegedly received five curtain-calls), one critic called her "corpulent" and "pudgy." Olga Preobajenskaya as the Columbine doll was panned by one critic as "completely insipid" and praised as "charming" by another. One audience member described the choreography of the battle scene as confusing: "One cannot understand anything. Disorderly pushing about from corner to corner and running backwards and forwards – quite amateurish."
       The libretto was criticized for being "lopsided" and for not being faithful to the Hoffmann tale. Much of the criticism focused on the featuring of children so prominently in the ballet and many bemoaned the fact that the ballerina did not dance until the Grand Pas de Deux near the end of the second act (which did not occur until nearly midnight during the program). Some found the transition between the mundane world of the first scene and the fantasy world of the second act too abrupt.Reception was better for Tchaikovsky's score. Critics called it "astonishingly rich in inspiration" and "from beginning to end, beautiful, melodious, original, and characteristic." But even this was not unanimous as some critics found the party scene "ponderous" and the Grand Pas de Deux "insipid."
      In 1919, choreographer Alexander Gorsky staged a production which eliminated the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier and gave their dances to Clara and the Nutcracker Prince, who were played by adults instead of children. His was the first production to do so. An abridged version of the ballet was first performed outside Russia in Budapest (Royal Opera House) in 1927, with choreography by Ede Brada. In 1934, choreographer Vasili Vainonen staged a version of the work that addressed many of the criticisms of the original 1892 production by casting adult dancers in the roles of Clara and the Prince, as Gorsky had. The Vainonen version influenced several later productions.
      The first complete performance outside Russia took place in England in 1934, staged by Nicholas Sergeyev after Petipa's original choreography. Annual performances of the ballet have been staged there since 1952. Another abridged version of the ballet, performed by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, was staged in New York City in 1940 by choreographer Alexandra Fedorova – again, after Petipa's version. The ballet's first complete United States performance was on 24 December 1944, by the San Francisco Ballet, staged by its artistic director Willam Christensen. The New York City Ballet gave its first annual performance of George Balanchine's staging of The Nutcracker in 1954. Beginning in the 1960s, the tradition of performing the complete ballet at Christmas eventually spread to the rest of the United States.
      Since Gorsky, Vainonen and Balanchine's productions, many other choreographers have made their own versions. Some institute the changes made by Gorsky and Vainonen while others, like Balanchine, utilize the original libretto. Some notable productions include those by Rudolf Nureyev for the Royal Ballet, Yuri Grigorovich for the Bolshoi Ballet, Mikhail Baryshnikov for the American Ballet Theatre, and Peter Wright for the Royal Ballet and the Birmingham Royal Ballet. In recent years, revisionist productions, including those by Mark Morris, Matthew Bourne, and Mikhail Chemiakin have appeared; these depart radically from both the original 1892 libretto and Vainonen's revival, while Maurice Bejart's version completely discards the original plot and characters. In addition to annual live stagings of the work, many productions have also been televised and / or released on home video.

MP3 recordings of The Nutcracker

Additional Links to Christmas theatre, music, and ballet.
Opera Companies:
Theatre Productions About Christmas or Teach Christmas Values:
Choirs young and old, novice and professional:
Nativity Plays and Performances by Little People:

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