Probably the most performed ballet in the world, The Nutcracker, which will be staged here in Adelaide by the Imperial Russian Ballet this October, wasn’t always a Christmas and crowd favourite.
George Balanchine is to blame. First presented at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg on December 17, 1892, The Nutcracker had only sporadic performances until the 1960s, including one in 1954 with Balanchine’s choreography for his New York City Ballet (NYCB), until his revised version premiered on December 11, 1964. He has written: “I have liked this ballet from the first time I danced in it as a boy, when I did small roles in the Mariinsky Theatre productions. When I was 15 I danced the Nutcracker Prince.”
It was the NYCB’s first full-length work. The supreme Christmas entertainment, it is now a December staple of American ballet companies large and small, professional and amateur, a cash cow on which many rely to fill the coffers for the following year.
Yet its early life was less than successful. The story, from a somewhat dark tale by E.T.A. Hoffmann romanticised by Alexandre Dumas, is of Clara (Marie in the original), who dreams that her godfather Drosselmeyer’s Christmas gift of a nutcracker becomes a prince who not only defeats an army of mice but takes her through a land of snowflakes to a kingdom of sweets. It did not at first appeal to the composer, Tchaikovsky, nor to choreographer Marius Petipa, who became ill and handed it over to Lev Ivanov. The work was in eight scenes and two acts, unlike the longer Sleeping Beauty, Raymonda and other narrative ballets. But the music endured, excerpts were included in ballet programs and new choreographies invented. In Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes groundbreaking 1909 Paris season Fokine provided one for Nijinsky to the tinkling music for the Sugar Plum Fairy, however incongruous that may seem; one critic thought the performance “exquisite”.
The first full-length production in the West was Ninette de Valois’ for the Vic- Wells (now the Royal Ballet) in 1934, in a revival by Nicholas Sergeyev. It held small appeal for historian Cyril Beaumont, who found the opening scene possessing “little of interest save a pleasant old-world charm” and the final scene “an excuse for the traditional series of character dances which, in this instance, are seldom appropriate to the situation and, generally are of indifferent quality”. It’s piquant to note that Margot Fonteyn made her debut as a Snowflake in this production.
Since then, The Nutcracker has become one of the most widely interpreted of ballets, at least partly because only a little of the original choreography survives. David Lichine’s version for the Borovansky Ballet (1955) had a thrilling (and dangerous) high point when the Prince sent the Sugar-Plum Fairy spinning into the air and caught her on the way down. Nureyev (1967), as he usually did with the classics, made plenty of changes – for one, it is Drosselmeyer, Clara’s rather frightening magician-godfather, who became the Prince, not the Nutcracker.
For American Ballet Theatre (1976) Mikhail Baryshnikov turned to Clara’s development from a young girl to a maturing teenager, giving the ballet a distinctly Freudian twist. Gelsey Kirkland, who created the role of Clara to great acclaim, later criticised Baryshnikov’s much-lauded production for diminishing the female characters, especially Clara, who is manipulated by the two men, Drosselmeyer and the Prince, but when she came to present a new production for her own company (2013), she did away with the Kingdom of Sweets, including the Sugar- Plum Fairy, the Prince taking her instead to his Celestial Palace.
There have been notable reinventions by John Neumeier (1971), Peter Schaufuss (1986), Mark Morris, The Hard Nut (1991), satirical and hilarious, Matthew Bourne (1992) and Graeme Murphy, with designer Kristian Fredrikson, (1992). Murphy’s, for the Australian Ballet and titled The Nutcracker: The Story of Clara, is of special interest because it was given an Australian context. The central figure is Clara the Elder, Russian, retired in Australia but still at heart a dancer; the ballet takes place on a hot summer night as she remembers her life as a dancer, from being a student in Russia, to dancing for Diaghilev, on tour throughout the world and ending in Australia. Enough of the traditional ballet remains to establish itself, but the narrative sweeps one along to a vastly new, and moving, experience. Last seen in 2009, it would be good to see it revived again.
Meanwhile, the Australian Ballet has Peter Wright’s sumptuous 1990 Birmingham Royal Ballet version, which premiered in Melbourne in 2007.
The much travelled and oddly-named Imperial Russian Ballet is bringing its Nutcracker to Adelaide this month, having last performed it here in 2013. Theirs is the 1934 Vasili Vainonen’s traditional version for the Mariinsky Ballet, and still in the repertoire; here it is in the revision by Gediminas Taranda, the Imperial’s artistic director, a former soloist with the Bolshoi Ballet. They have toured Australia and New Zealand several times, last year with Swan Lake, and have steadily been improving, so there is the possibility of a fine performance.
The Imperial Russian Ballet: The Nutcracker
Adelaide Festival Theatre
Friday, October 21 and Saturday, October 22