The Nutcracker first premiered on December 17, 1892, at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia. At its premiere, The Nutcracker was considered a failure by the public and critics. Tschaikovsky died less than a year later, not knowing what a huge international success the ballet would later become.
The elaborate stage elements and intricate lighting in New York City Ballet's production of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker® unleash the viewers' imagination by providing visual effects that are extraordinarily grand. The most famous example is the one-ton Christmas tree that grows from a height of 12 feet to 41 feet, evoking audible gasps of disbelief from the audience at each performance. Other notable feats include the comic figure of Mother Ginger — 85 pounds and nine feet wide, the costume requires handling by three people once it is lowered by pulley over the dancer's head — as well as the continuous flutter of the purest, crystal-shaped snowflakes (which are swept up and conserved after each performance for reuse).
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.
Here are some fun facts on New York City Ballet's production of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker®:
- the giant Christmas tree grows to a full height of 41 feet and weighs 1 ton
- 57 people work backstage to coordinate the scenery, lighting, and costumes during each performance
- 62 musicians play in the orchestra for each performance
- 150 costumes appear onstage in each performance of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker®. The only costumes still in use from the original 1954 production of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker® are the Grandmother’s cape and the embroidered appliqués on the women’s costumes in the Tea dance
- the music for the violin solo during the change of scenery in Act I is actually taken from Tschaikovsky’s score for the ballet The Sleeping Beauty
- the Sugarplum Fairy’s tutu is made of 7 layers of tulle
- between 600 and 700 lighting instruments are used in the stage lighting for the production
- Tschaikovsky based the music for the Coffee dance on the melody of a Georgian lullaby
- the bodices of the dresses worn by the women in the Hot Chocolate dance are decorated with small cameo pictures of New York City Ballet Founders Lincoln Kirstein (on the soloists) and George Balanchine (on the corps de ballet dancers)
- there are 144 jingle bells on each of the Candy Cane costumes
- Mother Ginger’s skirt is supported by a 40-pound metal frame
- most of the scenery in the production is actually painted fabric
- the Dewdrop costume is adorned with 65 crystal dewdrops
- the special instrument played for the Sugarplum Fairy’s solo is a celesta. Tschaikovsky used the newly-invented celesta to make the music for the Sugarplum Fairy sound like the "sprays of a fountain" as the choreographer Marius Petipa requested
It’s a snowy Christmas Eve at the Stahlbaum home, and Dr. and Frau Stahlbaum and their children, Marie and Fritz, are welcoming their guests to a holiday party. There are games and gifts for the children, and dancing for everyone. Marie’s beloved godfather, Herr Drosselmeier, introduces her to his young nephew and gives her a wonderful present: a handsome wooden Nutcracker.
After the party, Marie falls asleep on the sofa with her Nutcracker. Suddenly, she sits up — something is not right. Out of nowhere, giant mice scurry into the room, and the Christmas tree begins to grow, higher and higher, until it towers over Marie. Everything in the room disappears except for Fritz’s toy soldiers and the Nutcracker — all now as big as Marie. The Nutcracker leads the toy soldiers into battle with the mice, and Marie helps him by throwing her slipper at the fierce Mouse King, who the Nutcracker then slays. Now that the Mouse King is dead, an ancient spell has been broken, and the Nutcracker is transformed into a handsome prince. As he presents Marie with the Mouse King’s crown, she recognizes him as Herr Drosselmeier’s nephew. The children enter a beautiful forest, where the snowflakes dance a lovely waltz and guide Marie and the Prince toward the Christmas Star.
Marie and the Prince arrive in the Land of Sweets and are greeted by the beautiful Sugarplum Fairy and all the other inhabitants of her realm. The Prince tells the story of the battle with the mice, describing how Marie helped him defeat the Mouse King. Everyone is delighted that the Prince and Marie are safe, and the Sugarplum Fairy leads them to a glittering throne, where they can enjoy cakes and candies. Everyone dances for the two children: Hot Chocolate from Spain, Chinese Tea, Coffee from Arabia, the Candy Canes, the Marzipan Shepherdesses, and Mother Ginger, with her eight little polichinelles. Then comes the Waltz of the Flowers, with a shimmering Dewdrop dancing among the lovely blooms, and finally, the Sugarplum Fairy returns with her Cavalier to perform a majestic dance.
It’s time for Marie and the Prince to say goodbye. Everyone returns to bid them farewell, and they soar off in a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer.
In 1816, E.T.A. Hoffman published The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, a scary fairy-tale intended only for adults. Years later, Alexander Dumas père's version of the story made it happier and more appropriate for children to read. Marius Petipa, chief ballet master of the Russian Imperial Ballet, liked this new story and decided to have it made into a ballet. He commissioned Peter Ilyitch Tschaikovsky to write the music. Petipa’s assistant Lev Ivanov created the choreography. The production was first performed in December 1892 in St. Petersburg, Russia.
George Balanchine, who grew up in Russia, danced the role of the Prince in The Nutcracker in 1919 when he was 15 years old. Later, after he had moved to America and founded New York City Ballet, he decided to choreograph his own version of The Nutcracker for his company. The first performance of this production was on February 2, 1954, in New York City, and George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker® has been an annual holiday tradition ever since. New York City Ballet usually presents 47 performances of the ballet annually. The production was filmed in 1993, and now people all around the world have enjoyed it on video.
Peter Ilyitch Tschaikovsky (1840 to 1893) composed the music for the ballet The Nutcracker. Tschaikovsky was Russian and studied music at the conservatory in St. Petersburg. He composed many different types of music, including ballets, symphonies, operas, chamber music, concerti, and works for the piano. Besides The Nutcracker, he also wrote the music for the ballets Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty. Many choreographers, including George Balanchine, have made ballets to Tschaikovsky’s concert music that was not written specifically for dancing.
New York City Ballet Founder and Founding Choreographer George Balanchine (1904-1983) grew up in Russia, studying dance at the Russian Imperial Ballet School and music at the conservatory in St. Petersburg. He danced and choreographed in Europe before Lincoln Kirstein invited him to move to America. In 1934, Balanchine and Kirstein founded the School of American Ballet in New York City. They also started several short-lived ballet companies before establishing New York City Ballet in 1948. Balanchine choreographed many different types of ballets throughout his career, including traditional story ballets such as George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker®, classical ballets without stories like Symphony in C, and more modern ballets like The Four Temperaments and Agon. He also choreographed for Broadway and Hollywood musicals. He is well known for creating ballets performed in simple practice clothing without elaborate scenery, where the focus is on the music and the dancing.
Barbara Karinska (1886-1983) designed the costumes for George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker®. She was trained in embroidery in Russia and worked in Paris and London before moving to New York in 1939. Throughout her career, she designed and constructed costumes for dance, film, and Broadway musicals. She won an Academy Award for her work in Hollywood. She first worked with George Balanchine in Europe in the early 1930s, and collaborated with him in New York from 1946 until the end of her life. Karinska’s costume shop only made costumes for New York City Ballet after 1964. Besides George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker®, she is well known for her costume designs for Balanchine’s Jewels, Vienna Waltzes, and Western Symphony, among many others.
Rouben Ter-Arutunian (1920-1992) is the scenic designer for George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker®. Ter-Arutunian was Armenian and studied and worked in Berlin, Vienna, and Paris. He moved to the United States in 1951. He was a stage designer for opera, television, plays, and Broadway musicals, as well as ballets. He worked with many different choreographers and is especially well known for his collaborations with George Balanchine on ballets including Harlequinade and Vienna Waltzes.
George Balanchine's The Nutcracker® is generously sponsored by The Travelers Companies, Inc.