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

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

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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Chisako Oga photographed for Pointe by Jayme Thornton

Chisako Oga Is Soaring to New Heights at Boston Ballet

Chisako Oga is a dancer on the move—in more ways than one. From childhood training in Texas, California and Japan to a San Francisco Ballet apprenticeship to her first professional post with Cincinnati Ballet, where she quickly rose to principal dancer, she has rarely stood still for long.

But now the 24-year-old ballerina is right where she wants to be, as one of the most promising soloists at Boston Ballet. In 2019, Oga left her principal contract to join the company as a second soloist, rising to soloist the following year. "I knew I would have to take a step down to join a company of a different caliber, and Boston Ballet is one of the best companies in the country," she says. "The repertoire—Kylián, Forysthe, all the full-length ballets—is so appealing to me."

And the company has offered her major opportunities from the start. She danced the title role in Giselle in her very first performances with Boston Ballet, transforming a playful innocent into a woman haunted by betrayal with dramatic conviction and technical aplomb. But she also is making her mark in contemporary work. The last ballet she performed onstage before the pandemic hit was William Forsythe's demanding In the middle, somewhat elevated, which she says was a dream to perform. "The style really clicked, felt really comfortable. Bill drew something new out of me every rehearsal. As hard as it was, it was so much fun."

"Chisako is a very natural mover, pliable and strong," says artistic director Mikko Nissinen. "Dancing seems to come very easy for her. Not many have that quality. She's like a diamond—I'm curious to see how much we can polish that talent."

Chisako Oga, an Asian-American ballerina, does a pench\u00e9 on pointe towards the camera with her arms held out to the side and her long hair flying. Smiling confidently, she wears a blue leotard and a black and white ombr\u00e9 tutu.

Jayme Thornton for Pointe

A Life-Changing Opportunity

Oga began dancing at the age of 3. Born in Dallas, she and her family moved around to follow her father's job in IT. Before settling in Carlsbad, California, they landed in Japan for several years, where Oga began to take ballet very seriously. "I like the simplicity of ballet, the structure and the clear vocabulary," she says. "Dances that portray a story or have a message really drew me in. One of my favorite parts of a story ballet is diving into the role and becoming the character, putting it in my perspective."

In California, Oga studied with Victor and Tatiana Kasatsky and Maxim Tchernychev. Her teachers encouraged her to enter competitions, which she says broadened her outlook and fed her love of performing in front of an audience. Though highly motivated, she says she came to realize that winning medals wasn't everything. "Honestly, I feel like the times I got close and didn't place gave me perspective, made me realize being a dancer doesn't define you and helped me become the person and the dancer I am today."

At 15, Oga was a semifinalist at the Prix de Lausanne, resulting in a "life-changing" scholarship to the San Francisco Ballet School. There she trained with two of her most influential teachers, Tina LeBlanc and Patrick Armand. "She came in straightaway with strong basics," Armand recalls, "and working with her for two years, I realized how clever she is. She's super-smart, thoughtful, driven, always working."

She became a company apprentice in 2016. Then came the disappointing news—she was let go a few months later. Pushing 5' 2", she was simply too short for the company's needs, she was told. "It was really, really hard," says Oga. "I felt like I was on a good track, so to be let go was very shocking, especially since my height was not something I could improve or change."

Jayme Thornton for Pointe

Moving On and Up

Ironically, Oga's height proved an advantage in auditioning for Cincinnati Ballet, which was looking for a talented partner for some of their shorter men. She joined the company in 2016, was quickly promoted to soloist, and became a principal dancer for the 2017–18 season, garnering major roles like Swanilda and Juliet during her three years with the company. "There were times I felt insignificant and insecure, like I don't deserve this," Oga says about these early opportunities. "But I was mostly thrilled to be put in those shoes."

She was also thriving in contemporary work, like choreographer-in-residence Jennifer Archibald's MYOHO. Archibald cites her warmth, playfulness and sensitivity, adding, "There's also a powerful presence about her, and I was amazed at how fast she was at picking up choreography, able to find the transitions quickly. She's definitely a special talent. Boston Ballet will give her more exposure on a national level."

Chisako Oga, an Asian-American ballerina, poses in attitude derriere crois\u00e9 on her right leg, with her right arm out to the side and her left hand grazing her left shoulder. She smiles happily towards the camera, her black hair blowing in the breeze, and wears a blue leotard, black-and-white ombre tutu, and skin-colored pointe shoes.

Jayme Thornton for Pointe

That was Oga's plan. She knew going in that Cincinnati was more stepping-stone than final destination. She had her sights on a bigger company with a broader repertoire, and Boston Ballet seemed ideal.

As she continues to spread her wings at the company, Oga has developed a seemingly effortless artistic partnership with one of Boston Ballet's most dynamic male principals, Derek Dunn, who Oga calls "a kind-hearted, open person, so supportive when I've been hard on myself. He's taught me to believe in myself and trust that I'm capable of doing whatever the choreography needs." The two have developed an easy bond in the studio she likens to "a good conversation, back and forth."

Dunn agrees. "I knew the first time we danced together we had a special connection," he says. "She really takes on the artistic side of a role, which makes the connection really strong when we're dancing onstage. It's like being in a different world."

He adds, "She came into the company and a lot was thrown at her, which could have been daunting. She handled it with such grace and confidence."

Derek Dunn, shirtless and in blue tights, lunges slightly on his right leg and holds Chisako Oga's hand as she balances on her left leg on pointe with her right leg flicking behind her. She wears a yellow halter-top leotard and they dance onstage in front of a bright orange backdrop.

Oga with Derek Dunn in Helen Pickett's Petal

Liza Voll, Courtesy Boston Ballet

Perspective in a Pandemic

The pair were heading into Boston Ballet's busy spring season when the pandemic hit. "It was really a bummer," Oga says. "I was really looking forward to Swan Lake, Bella Figura, some new world premieres. When we found out the whole season was canceled, it was hard news to take in."

But she quickly determined to make the most of her time out of the studio and physically rest her body. "All the performances take a toll. Of course, I did stretches and exercised, but we never give ourselves enough time to rest as dancers."

She also resumed college courses toward a second career. Oga is one of many Boston Ballet dancers taking advantage of a special partnership with Northeastern University to help them earn bachelor's degrees. Focusing on finance and accounting, Oga upped her classes in economics, algebra, business and marketing. She also joined Boston Ballet's Color Our Future Mentoring Program to raise awareness and support diversity, equity and inclusion. "I am trying to have my voice inspire the next generation," she says.

Jayme Thornton for Pointe

One pandemic silver lining has been spending more time with her husband, Grand Rapids Ballet dancer James Cunningham. The two met at Cincinnati Ballet, dancing together in Adam Hougland's Cut to the Chase just after Oga's arrival, and got married shortly before her move to Boston. Cunningham took a position in Grand Rapids, so they've been navigating a long-distance marriage ever since. They spend a lot of time texting and on FaceTime, connecting in person during layoffs. "It's really hard," Oga admits, but adds, "We are both very passionate about the art form, so it's easy to support each other's goals."

Oga's best advice for young dancers? "Don't take any moment for granted," she says without hesitation. "It doesn't matter what rank you are, just do everything to the fullest—people will see the hard work you put in. Don't settle for anything less. Knowing [yourself] is also very important, not holding yourself to another's standards. No two paths are going to be the same."

And for the foreseeable future, Oga's path is to live life to the fullest, inside and outside ballet. "The pandemic put things in perspective. Dancing is my passion. I want to do it as long as I can, but it's only one portion of my life. I truly believe a healthy balance between social and work life is good for your mental health and helps me be a better dancer."

American Ballet Theatre corps member Rachel Richardson. NYC Dance Project, Courtesy Rachel Richardson

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When I signed my first professional contract with Eugene Ballet, one of the last things I anticipated was the opportunity to dance beside a member of American Ballet Theatre. Flash forward to the start of our spring season this year, and suddenly I'm chatting in the hallway and rehearsing the Cinderella fairy variations next to luminous ABT corps member Rachel Richardson. When ABT announced it was canceling live performances for the 2020–21 season, Richardson traveled back home to Eugene, Oregon, to be with her family—and this spring joined the company as a guest artist.

Growing up, Richardson trained locally in Eugene before moving to The Rock School for Dance Education's year-round program in Philadelphia. After securing a spot in the ABT Studio Company in 2013, she was promoted to corps de ballet in 2015. This unconventional year marks her sixth season with the main company.

After having the privilege of dancing with her this spring, I sat down with Richardson to discuss her recent guesting experience, how the pandemic has helped her grow and her advice for young dancers.

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Abra Geiger, from the 2019 YAGP Season Finals. VAM Productions, Courtesy YAGP

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