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Repertoire Spotlight: The Nutcracker

A Beginner’s Guide to The Nutcracker

Original Choreographer: Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov

Composer: Peter Tchaikovsky

Story: Adapted from E. T. A. Hoffmann's "The Nutcracker & the Mouse King”

Premiere: 1892, Imperial Mariinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg

Quick Facts:

1. ETA Hoffmann also wrote two stories of which another ballet Coppelia is based on.

2. The first performance of The Nutcracker in the USA was in 1944 by San Francisco Ballet. George Balanchine premiered his version of The Nutcracker in 1954, as a result of both productions successes, it began a tradition of performing the complete ballet at Christmas that eventually spread throughout the country and around the world.

3. Tchaikovsky’s score is most noted for the use of the unique instrument, the celesta, especially in “The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy”. Other music compositions that feature the celesta are Ernest Chausson’s The Tempest, George Gershwin’s An American in Paris and many opera scores including Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot.

4. Tchaikovsky died less than a year after the premiere of The Nutcracker, this being his final ballet score.


This is the second time Petipa and Tchaikovsky worked together to commission a ballet, the first time being not Swan Lake, but The Sleeping Beauty in 1889. (Petipa choreographed the revival of Swan Lake to Tchaikovsky’s music in 1895 after its original premiere in 1877.)

Petipa began work on the choreography of the ballet, but due to illness, his assistant Ivanov was tasked to complete the ballet. As a result, many credit Ivanov to be the primary choreographer of the ballet.

The premiere performance of the ballet was not a success, but Tchaikovsky’s score was. It was not until much later that the ballet has seen the commercial success it is known for today.


The story follows young heroine Clara (or Marie) on Christmas Eve with her parents and younger brother Fritz. Family and friends gather in celebration near the beautiful Christmas tree in Clara’s home. The party begins and the children, as well as parents, dance in happiness.

Drosselmeyer in English National Ballet's production.

Suddenly the clock strikes and a mysterious figure is known as Drosselmeyer enters the room. Inventor and magician, Drosselmeyer is Clara’s godfather. Drosselmeyer quickly takes over the party, especially with all the gifts he has brought for everyone, including life-sized dolls who dance to everyone’s delight. Drosselmeyer also tells all the children of a story about a brave soldier who defeats his enemy, the evil Mouse King, and his army. All the children rush to open the presents when Drosselmeyer gifts Clara a wooden nutcracker. Amazed at the contraption, Clara loves her gift, however, Fritz is jealous. He steals the nutcracker and breaks it, leaving Clara devastated, but Drosselmeyer manages to fix him.

After the party and everyone has gone to sleep, Clara returns to the parlor to check on her nutcracker. As she approaches her nutcracker, the clock strikes midnight and looks up to find Drosselmeyer perched on top of it. Suddenly, mice fill the room, the Christmas tree grows taller and taller, and even her nutcracker grows big and comes to life. Clara finds herself in the middle of a battle between the mice led by their king and the toy soldiers with the nutcracker.

The Nutcracker and Mouse King battle in Boston Ballet's production.

As the nutcracker fights the Mouse King, it appears they are evenly matched. Just as the Mouse King is about to deal the finishing blow to the nutcracker, Clara throws her slipper at him, long enough to distract him with the nutcracker deals the finishing blow. The mice retreat with their dead leader and the nutcracker transforms into a handsome Prince. He leads Clara through a forest with dancing snowflakes back to his home, the Kingdom of Sweets.

Clara and the Prince in "Waltz of the Snowflakes" in The Royal Ballet.

Clara and the Prince arrive in the Kingdom of Sweets and are greeted by the Sugar Plum Fairy. He tells how Clara saved him when he was battling the Mouse King and transformed back into himself. The Sugar Plum Fairy calls on all the sweets to celebrate and honor the young heroine: Spanish Chocolate, Arabian Coffee, Chinese Tea, candy canes, marzipan, Mother Ginger and her children, Russian Trepak and finally a group of waltzing flowers led by the Dewdrop.

Arabian Coffee in The Royal Ballet.
The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy in The Royal Ballet.

Last to perform is the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier to conclude the celebration. After, Clara is escorted by the Prince back to her home as she waves goodbye to all the sweets and the Sugar Plum Fairy.

Famous Productions and Adaptations:

George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker®, 1954 as performed by New York City Ballet and other companies around the world.

Peter Wright’s The Nutcracker, 1984/1990 as performed by The Royal Ballet and Birmingham Royal Ballet.

The Nutcracker and the Four Realms 2018 Disney movie


Happy Holidays from TBA!

Term Break 2-16 December (except for Adult Open Class)


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