George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker®
George Balanchine © The George Balanchine Trust
Peter Ilyitch Tschaikovsky
Photo © Paul Kolnik
The first performance of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker® was given by New York City Ballet in February 1954. Children and adults of all ages are captivated by the lure of Tschaikovsky’s music, Balanchine’s choreography, Karinska’s sumptuous costumes, and Rouben Ter-Arutunian’s magical sets.
George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker®, based on the Alexandre Dumas, père version of E.T.A. Hoffmann’s tale, “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” (1816), demands a full-scale production. The elaborate stage elements and intricate lighting unleash the viewers’ imagination by providing visual effects that are extraordinarily grand. The most famous example is the Christmas tree that grows from a height of 12 feet to 40 feet, evoking audible gasps of disbelief from the audience at each performance. Other notable feats include the comic figure of Mother Ginger, as well as the continuous flutter of the crystal-shaped snowflakes.
While these technical achievements are wonderful fun, it is Balanchine’s choreography that sustains the ballet through two acts. Act I introduces the characters–the Stahlbaum children, Marie and Fritz, Herr Drosselmeier and his Nephew–and also begins the transition from reality into fantasy with the concluding Snowflake Waltz. Act II offers the complete transformation. We have entered the Kingdom of the Sugarplum Fairy and there is no turning back.
Peter Ilyitch Tschaikovsky (1840-1893) studied at the Conservatory in St. Petersburg, where Balanchine later studied piano in addition to his studies in dance. Tschaikovsky is one of the most popular and influential of all romantic composers. His work is expressive, melodic, and grand in scale, with rich orchestrations. His output was prodigious and included chamber works, symphonies, concerti for various instruments, operas, and works for the piano. His creations for the ballet, composed in close partnership with Marius Petipa, include Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, and The Sleeping Beauty.