While setting The Nutcracker George Balanchine recalled his experiences as a young man at the Mariinsky Theatre, where he danced four roles in the ballet. So how fitting it is that the ballet’s opening picture is that of children: Marie and her brother Fritz.
It is approximately 150 years ago and the children are waiting to join their parents at their Christmas Eve party. For the party scene, Balanchine remembered traditional holiday parties he had attended at Bolshoi Hall, where the children were well dressed, played games and danced together.
Included in the party scene is a tug-of-war between the boys and the girls, and every year the boys’ side wins. In the interest of giving the girls a chance at winning, OBT’s Artistic Director, Kevin Irving, contacted the Balanchine Trust to find out if we might make that one small change. But he was told “no”, that even in this one detail the choreography had to stay true to the original.
Other familiar games of leapfrog, keep-away and rides on a hobbyhorse keep the party lively.
Then a new guest arrives at the party – Herr Drosselmeier – a family friend and Marie’s godfather. He wears a black patch over one eye and manipulates his cape like a magician. He is a mysterious inventor who has brought life-sized mechanical dolls for the children’s entertainment: the Commedia dell’arte-derived characters of Harlequin and Columbine dance together, followed by an energetic display of skills by a Toy Soldier.
Drosselmeier also brings the all-important Nutcracker doll for his favorite goddaughter, Marie. Her brother, Fritz, becomes very jealous, steals the Nutcracker and breaks the doll. Fortunately Drosselmeier is able to repair it, and in the interest of putting an end to the disorder, the adults organize for the Grossvater Dance (or “Grandfather Dance”), with the grown-ups on one side and the children mirroring them on the other. Eventually, the party winds down, Marie and Drosselmeier’s handsome nephew say goodnight and the guests depart.
When all is quiet in the house we hear a violin solo that Tchaikovsky borrowed from his score for Sleeping Beauty. Then, suddenly, Drosselmeier returns. He appears above the grandfather clock, spreading his cape like the wings of the owl on the clock, and begins to work his magic.
He sets the stage for extraordinary transformations, not the least of which is the growing Christmas tree. In 1954, Balanchine’s colleagues suggested they leave out the growing tree in order to save on expenses, but Balanchine felt it was so essential to the work that he insisted on its inclusion, saying “The ballet is the tree!”
So to this day the tree grows, the mouse and soldier armies come to life, and Marie finds herself in the middle of the battle scene.
Marie’s Nutcracker, now transformed into a valiant soldier, must do battle with the Mouse King, who has seven terrifying heads, and great bulk thanks to the many layers of tulle that build out his costume.
This inner suit of tulle, which is made out of the same material used to create a stiff tutu, weighs 20 lbs. The headpiece weighs an additional 10 lbs. and includes a crown of 6 rat heads that fan out around the Mouse King mask. This enormous headdress stays standing upright with a set of straps that go over the shoulder and click together in the middle. (It takes the dancer a full seven minutes to get fully suited up.)
During the battle, Marie’s courage is tested, and it is her ability to distract the Mouse King that allows the Nutcracker to be victorious. Once the Mouse King is defeated, Marie faints onto her bed, which travels magically into the snowy outdoors. The Nutcracker soldier is transformed before her eyes into a storybook prince, who presents Marie with the Mouse King’s crown and together they go out into the Land of Snow.
This section begins simply with wind-tossed formations, then builds to a blizzard as the dance progresses geometrically. The dancers trace intricate designs to create dynamic shapes: circular patterns echo whirlwinds and star formations recall snowflakes.
Notation from the original 1892 production shows a bird’s eye view of the dancers’ floor patterns, wherein they trace round dances, braided zigzags and, at one point, a large rotating cross with a smaller circle of dancers rotating in the opposite direction.
Lit as if under a twilight moon, this stunning scene comes to a close as the curtain comes down on the end of Act I.
Come, be a part of the holiday magic!