From Epic Fail to Christmas Classic: The History of The Nutcracker

Whether you are a ballet fan or not you probably know of “The Nutcracker”. Even if you haven’t been to see a performance, at the very least you’ve heard the music from this iconic piece. It has left such an impression on the world that now you can find the sugar plum music in the mall or on TV. Not only that, but you will see nutcrackers sold as Christmas decor everywhere! For many, “The Nutcracker” is the one ballet a year families will go see. It’s a production that has taken over theaters worldwide. It is a story that hundreds of choreographers find themselves retelling in their own unique way. The tale is enchanting, the score is a musical masterpiece, and the dancing showcases pure classical ballet to its finest. 

But did you know that this timeless, monumental, and influential ballet began as a total flop? 

Marius Petipa
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Well, once upon a time in 19th century Russia, the director of the Imperial Theater commissioned Marius Petipa, our founding father of classical repertoire, to create a ballet based on Alexandre Dumas’s adaptation of ETA Hoffmann’s “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King”. Like many fairytales, the original was too dark and scary for your common audience, so they staged this fun, enchanting version. Or at least they hoped it would be fun and enchanting…

Partnered musically by the renowned Tchaikovsky, there seemed to be very little stopping them. Tchaikovsky and Petipa had not long before created the famous “Swan Lake” and “The Sleeping Beauty”. 

But they weren’t far into their project when things began to fall to pieces. Petipa became too ill to choreograph, which in turn threw all the responsibility onto his assistant, Lev Ivanov, to carry on what he had just started. As time showed, Lev was not the choreographer Petipa was.

The premiere took place on December 18, 1892, at the Imperial Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, Russia. And immediately the harsh critics spewed out their reviews, leading to the ballet quickly being taken out of the repertoire. One writer said, “The Nutcracker cannot, in any event, be called a ballet. It does not satisfy even one of the demands made of a ballet” and yet another, “God grant that similar failed experiments do not happen often.” Other critics called it an “insult” to ballet. The main criticism was poor storytelling, rough transitions, not enough use of the ballet dancers, and too much use of children. 

Very sadly, Tchaikovsky died before his composition for “The Nutcracker” was ever recognized as a masterpiece. The reviews concerning his score were very divided.

But, somehow, even with its devastating failure, the story of Nutcracker was not over. In the 1930s, Nicholas Sergeyev, a Russian artist that fled to the west in early 1900, was the first to fully restage Marius Petipa’s Nutcracker outside of Russia. He premiered it at the Sadler Well’s Ballet, and it was met with a much less aggressive audience. After him, several companies in the United States started creating their own versions too. San Francisco’s version by director, Willam Christensen, was the launchpad for “The Nutcracker” boom in the US. It was a huge hit! Many choreographers were inspired to create their own versions after his success. It wasn’t long before the Nutcracker was redeemed! And not only that, but some might say, it has become the number one attended ballet of all time! It is even estimated that “the Nutcracker” generates up to 45% of American ballet company’s annual revenue! 

Royal Ballet

Next time you enjoy “The Nutcracker” with your family or friends, think about how much you would have missed out on, if people had given up on the first try, rejected its potential, and doomed it irredeemable. 

To all ballerinas who dance for companies that make you perform on Christmas, I hope this sparks a bit of life in your day, and that it brings back some of the enchantment of Nutcracker, even if it is your millionth time doing it. 

Here’s to unlikely successes, second tries, and epic fails that become timeless classics. Here’s to Nutcracker. 

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