How the Nutcracker Began

The beloved tale of the Nutcracker was not always the magical holiday tradition we are so familiar with today. Originally published in 1816 by E.T.A. Hoffman, “Kussknacker und Mausekonig” (“The Nutcracker and the Mouse King”) was a dark psychological story never intended for children.

Nussknacker & Mäusekönig: E.T.A. Hoffmann Illustration, 1816

Using Alexandre Dumas’s watered-down adaptation as the basis for the ballet commissioned in Russia in 1891, Marius Pepita worked on the choreography until he became ill and his assistant Lev Ivanov finished the ballet. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was given the task of composing the musical score, though he would have preferred basing it on the original Hoffman tale deemed too complex to convey onstage. Indeed Tchaikovsky was far happier with The Sleeping Beauty, his previous ballet score.

La Casse Noisette premiered the following year on December 18, 1892, at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia to mixed reviews. As part of the imperial ballet is ongoing repertoire, the Nutcracker was not considered a seasonal production and was as likely to be seen in May as in December. It was first seen outside of Russia after World War I and the Russian Revolution, when segments were occasionally revived by dance refugees who immigrated from Russia.

More than half a century after its premiere, the first full length Nutcracker in North America was performed in 1944 at the War Memorial Opera House by San Francisco Ballet and choreographed by Lew Christensen. Ten years later, The Nutcracker became a phenomenon when George Balanchine‘s staging for New York City Ballet aired as a televised holiday special and was seen in homes throughout the United States and Canada. Ever since, The Nutcracker has been a traditional part of the holiday season enchanting both children and adults alike.

Ballerinas in their first flight of The Nutcracker: the Ballet Russe at the 51st Street Theater, 1940 (Picture courtesy the New York Times)

This fascinating poster from 1954 when Balanchine first staged the Nutcracker [Maria Tallchief as Sugar Plum Fairy, Tanaquil LeClercq as Dewdrop] — comes from the collection of Edith Brozak McMann, a former New York City Ballet dancer. 

Patricia McBride and Edward Villella, Balanchine’s NYCB performance from 1964 – photo by Martha Swope

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