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Nutcracker Secrets and Surprises: The Iconic Ballet's Path From Critical Flop to Holiday Fixture

New York City Ballet's famous growing tree. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB.

Literary Roots

E.T.A. Hoffmann, a German writer, penned the eerie and dark tale "Nutcracker and Mouse King" in 1816. About 30 years later, the French writer Alexandre Dumas took the Nutcracker story into his own hands, lightening things up and softening the character descriptions. Dumas even cheered up the name of the protagonist. "Marie Stahlbaum" (meaning "steel tree," representing the repressive family Marie found herself in, which led her imagination to run wild) became "Clara Silberhaus" (translated to "silver house," a magnificent home filled with shiny magic.)

Snowflakes of the original cast, "The Nutcracker" at the Mariinsky Theatre, 1892. Photo by Walter E. Owen, Courtesy Dance Magazine Archives.

From Page to Stage

In 1892 St. Petersburg, choreographer Marius Petipa and composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky pulled the story off the page and onto the stage of the Mariinsky Theatre. But Petipa fell ill while choreographing The Nutcracker and handed his duties over to his assistant, Lev Ivanov. Critics at the 1892 premiere were not pleased. Balletomanes felt the work to be uneven, and lamented the lack of a main ballerina in the first act. Many thought that the story was too light compared to historically based stories.

Out of Russia

Despite its initial reception, the ballet survived, partially due to the success of Tchaikovsky's score. Performances were scarce, though, as the Russian Revolution scattered its original dancers. The Nutcracker's first major exposure outside of Russia took place in London in 1934. Former Mariinsky ballet master Nikolas Sergeyev was tasked with staging Petipa's story ballets on the Vic-Wells Ballet (today The Royal Ballet) from the original notation. The notes were incomplete and difficult to read, yet Sergeyev persisted, and The Nutcracker made it to the stage.

Dancers from ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in "The Nutcracker" pas de deux. Photo Courtesy Dance Magazine Archives.


An American Premiere

The Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo brought an abridged version of The Nutcracker to the U.S. in 1940. Over the next decade, the company toured the ballet extensively, exposing it to audiences nationwide.

Willam Christensen (center) with his brothers Lew and Harold. Photo Courtesy San Francisco Ballet.

Across the Country…

In 1944, San Francisco Ballet founding artistic director Willam Christensen choreographed the U.S.'s first full-length Nutcracker. Christensen later founded Ballet West, which continues to perform his version of The Nutcracker each year.

Balanchine rehearsing the snow scene with NYCB. Photo by Frederick Melton, Courtesy Dance Magazine Archives.

A Christmas Staple

Though the ballet's popularity was already growing, some historians suggest that George Balanchine was the first to irretrievably link the work to the holidays. As dance critic Robert Greskovic puts it, Balanchine was "responsible for making the ballet a fixture of the Christmas season and of a ballet company's repertory." New York City Ballet first presented Balanchine's Nutcracker in February of 1954 but quickly recognized its holiday appeal and moved the ballet to December for the following year.

Nutcracker All Over

As regional ballet companies sprouted around the country, The Nutcracker became a staple.Today it's a holiday tradition that keeps families coming back year after year; its mass appeal keeps ballet in mainstream culture. Many companies attract audiences by infusing the classic with their own regional heritage: Christopher Wheeldon's Nutcracker for the Joffrey Ballet is set at Chicago's 1893 world's fair and The Washington Ballet serves a dose of American history with characters such as George Washington and King George III.

George Washington in The Washington Ballet's Nutcracker." Photo by Carol Pratt, Courtesy The Washington Ballet.

The Nutcracker also serves as the financial backbone of companies nationwide. Last year San Francisco Ballet sold a total of 87,926 tickets to the holiday ballet and Boston Ballet sold a total of 92,907. Despite its humble roots, The Nutcracker is now the show that companies rely on to put on inventive and cutting-edge works throughout the rest of the year.


More secrets and surprises…

  • According to dance historian Doug Fullington, in the original 1892 scenario the Nutcracker has two sisters who graciously welcome Clara to the Land of Sweets with warm hugs.


Pennsylvania Ballet's Craig Wasserman in the Candy Cane variation. Photo by Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy Pennsylvania Ballet.

  • The Candy Cane variation (danced to the Russian Trepak music) was choreographed by its original 1892 dancer, Alexandre Shiryaev. Dance critic Mindy Aloff says that Shiryaev was "possibly the first practitioner of hand-drawn animation; he notated his choreography in sequential drawings that could be projected to show the dance in movement." Balanchine included Shiryaev's original choreography in his Nutcracker.
  • The ethereal twinkling sound in the Sugar Plum Fairy's solo comes from the celesta, a rare instrument Tchaikovsky heard in France. "He had one sent to him essentially in secret," says Fullington.
  • Balanchine was given a budget of $40,000 for his 1954 premiere and, according to Aloff, he spent $25,000 on the Christmas tree alone. When asked if he could do without the tree Balanchine responded, "[The ballet] is the tree." Today, New York City Ballet's tree weighs one ton and can reach a full height of 41 feet.


1892 "Nutcracker" costume sketch by Ivan Vsevolozhsky of the Sugar Plum Fairy's retinue. Courtesy Peter Koppers.


  • Choreographic notations suggest that the Cavalier's variation was originally danced by a retinue of eight female fairies representing things like fruit, flowers and dreams. According to Fullington, Pavel Gerdt, the dancer who created the role, was likely too old to dance the variation himself.


NYCB's Brittany Pollack and Chase Finlay in the grand pas de deux toe slide. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy New York City Ballet.

  • In Balanchine's grand pas de deux, the lead ballerina holds an arabesque while gliding across the stage on pointe, pulled by her gallant prince. According to Fullington, Balanchine took this slide from Ivanov's original choreography.
  • The Sugar Plum Fairy's prince's original name was "Prince Coqueluche." Meaning "whooping cough" in French, it likely referred to a lozenge candy.


NYCB's Unity Phelan and Silas Farley in Karinska's Hot Chocolate costumes. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy New York City Ballet.

  • NYCB costume designer Barbara Karinska included a small cameo on the bodice of the Hot Chocolate costumes. The soloists' dresses bear the profile of NYCB co-founder Lincoln Kirstein, and the corps dancers' feature the face of Balanchine himself.
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Rigorous program, check. Well-rounded technical training, check. Purposeful liberal arts curriculum, check. Study your craft abroad, check! If you are looking for all the above, the Joan Phelps Palladino School of Dance at Dean College truly has it all.

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Photo by Theo Kossenas, Courtesy The Washington Ballet

You made a deal with your mom to take ballet classes in exchange for a ride to tryouts for the football team. How did that work?
I thought that I would take ballet for a couple months, become a master and then leave that alone and concentrate on football. Ballet had other ideas, which perplexed me, and ultimately, I think, made me fall in love with it.

How is The Washington Ballet evolving under Julie Kent's leadership?
It's still early, but I think that the company is growing stronger classically. And we have Julie, Victor Barbee, Xiomara Reyes and Rinat Imaev—a great team of people who are giving their input and expertise, which is quite helpful.

Mack in 'Swan Lake.' Photo by Theo Kossenas

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Summer Study Advice
Summer intensive students at the School of American Ballet. Photo by Rosalie O'Conner, Courtesy SAB.

As a young student, Shea McAdoo's classes at the Master Ballet Academy in Scottsdale, Arizona, were “strict, straightforward, very classical and purely Vaganova." She appreciated the Russian rigor and precision, but when she was accepted to the School of American Ballet's summer course at 13, she leapt at the chance to learn something new. The vastly different emphasis on Balanchine technique at SAB was illuminating: “It changed my whole way of thinking about musicality and accents. I'd never known there were so many ways to do a tendu! And the épaulement—I loved how they talked about light hitting your face, tilting your chin to show off your diamond earring."

McAdoo's experience was transformative, even when she returned home. “Of course, I lowered my arms back down in second and didn't cross my wrists," she says, “but there were stylistic choices I brought back with me." Today, as an apprentice with Oregon Ballet Theatre rehearsing Balanchine's Serenade, she credits her ease with the ballet's fluid port de bras to her summer at SAB.

Learning about ballet's various styles and techniques is an important part of a dancer's development. With summer intensive auditions approaching, it's a perfect time to consider broadening your training. While it can be initially confusing, immersing yourself in a style outside your comfort zone can be eye-opening and influential for your future training and career. And the benefits of diversifying your training can last beyond a single summer.


Shea McAdoo in OBT's production of "Paquita." Photo by James McGrew.

Let Curiosity Be Your Guide

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Summer Study Advice
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As summer intensive audition season starts up, I've been reminiscing about my own experience as a young dancer—way back in 1993—and how challenging it was to navigate. In fact, I think it's safe to say that my first summer program audition was a complete disaster.

I was almost 16—a little late by some standards—and was still pretty clueless as to how I compared to others outside my hometown. That weighed heavily on my mind as my parents and I made the hour-long drive to Milwaukee. The audition was for a school in Pennsylvania, and as I scanned the big-city studio, my mind slipped into exaggerated teenage self-consciousness. Dancers lined the barres stretching, showing off their flexibility as if doing some sort of war ritual. Many were chatting in groups, wearing trendy warm-up jumpers and donning perfectly shellacked buns. I tried to act like I knew what I was doing, but inside I was a wreck.

The teacher clapped his hands together to begin class. He was fast-paced, no-nonsense and not one for smiles. During pliés, he stopped in front of me with his clipboard as I emerged from a cambré back. He looked me up and down, frowned and kept going. I, of course, freaked out—what did that mean? I still had an entire hour and a half left of class to prove I was still capable, but instead I completely lost my concentration. I just couldn't shake that frown. I forgot combinations and even started with the wrong foot in front a few times in center. By jumps, the adjudicators had stopped watching me altogether. Needless to say, I spent the majority of the ride home trying not to cry.

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It's finally the weekend, and we're celebrating the best way we know how—a new ballet video. Juliet Doherty (who trained with San Francisco Ballet and Master Ballet Academy, and is set to star in the dance film, On Pointe), teamed up with Cartoon Network for her latest project.

"Cartoon Network contacted me about their show, Steven Universe, which was coming out with a new vinyl album of the soundtrack of the show," Doherty shared with Pointe. "They told me about one of the show's main characters named, Pearl, who is a strong-willed character but has the grace inspired by a ballerina."

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Mr. Jeremy FIsher, from Sir Frederick Ashton's "The Tales of Beatrix Potter."

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Run. Dance in a circle. Pretend to be a rabbit. It might sound like a creative movement combo, but don't let that fool you. The role of Peter Rabbit in Sir Frederick Ashton's The Tales of Beatrix Potter requires fierce technique—not to mention the ability to project personality while wearing an animal head and fur suit.


Four-Legged Interlude

Who do you turn to for halftime entertainment during a quartet of fairy variations? Dancing lizards, mice and a frog of course! This charming quintet of creatures light up the stage in David Bintley's Cinderella.

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