How a Russian Flop Became the Great American Ballet
“[It became clear to me] that The Nutcracker is an underdog, a newcomer who found a new life. It was then that I started thinking of The Nutcracker as an immigrant. Maybe the ballet was not appreciated in its native land, but once it landed in the egalitarian land of the free, it got another chance.”
–Jennifer Fisher, Nutcracker Nation (Yale University Press, 2003)
There are few things modern audiences enjoy as much as a good “It was a flop when it opened” anecdote about a piece of art we now know to be a classic. From Caravaggio, reviled in his time, to The Wizard of Oz, which tanked at the box office, there’s something so delightful about the magical fusion of history and hindsight that lets us revel in knowing something that audiences fifty, a hundred, five hundred years ago never saw coming. And every one of you reading this knows something that the elegant, high-culture Russian aristocrats sitting in the czar’s Imperial Maryinsky Theatre of Saint Petersburg on opening night on December 6, 1892 would never have believed – America is head-over-heels in love with The Nutcracker.
It seemed, on the surface, like The Nutcracker would be a guaranteed hit. After all, composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and choreographer Marius Petipa had just had a smashing success with The Sleeping Beauty only two years earlier. But Petipa backed out at the last minute, leaving the choreography to Lev Ivanov, his assistant, and Tchaikovsky’s audience was full of complaints. The ballet didn’t stick closely enough to the source material (E.T.A. Hoffman’s dark German folk tale The Nutcracker and the Mouse King). The Sugarplum Fairy wasn’t graceful enough. They didn’t like the fight scene choreography. The music was too complex for ballet, or the choreography wasn’t complex enough for the music. The complaints were incessant. Tchaikovsky died shortly after, with no idea that one day this would be the work that would permanently define him as an artist.
It would be well into the middle of the next century before the ballet became a hit, landing on American shores with touring ballet companies from Europe, though usually in bits and pieces; the Sugarplum Fairy’s grand pas de deux or the candy variations from the second act were common additions to a bill of traditional, classical ballet works that a touring company might produce. The first full-length American Nutcracker was produced in 1944 by William Christensen for the San Francisco Ballet. Balanchine created his for New York City Ballet in 1954, by which time Christensen had caught on to the idea of producing it every December in a lengthy run. In an odd coincidence, the ongoing popularity of the 1940 film Fantasia (which featured a significant chunk of the Nutcracker score) helped make the music accessible to Americans between New York and San Francisco without access to a full-length ballet version in their own town. In the late 50’s, Christmas Eve telecasts of the Balanchine Nutcracker (starring “Mr. B” himself as Drosselmeier, and featuring Francia Russell, the mother of OBT Artistic Director Christopher Stowell, in the corps!) not only brought the ballet into living rooms across America, but it emphasized the storytelling, hearth-and-home feel of the piece, firmly entrenching it as an American holiday tradition. Soon the ballet was a staple of nearly every American city and town.
And it found relevance everywhere. American ballet companies adapted The Nutcracker into a dizzying array of cultural contexts. Sometimes Clara was a little girl in fantasyland, sometimes an adult woman just discovering love and romance. Sometimes the European Christmas setting was preserved, while sometimes the Stahlbaum family was transported to far-off lands. “Hulas were added in Hawaii, cowboys in Arizona, hockey players in Winnipeg, Cajun food in Louisiana,” says Jennifer Fisher in her book Nutcracker Nation. “Clara, it turns out, might have moved from Germany to Georgia, and she might be a jazz dancer, or a student of ballet folklórico or bharata natyam, a classical dance form from southern India . . . Making Clara an illegal alien or a cross-dresser, or having the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Prince duke it out in a boxing ring are merely alternate ways of having the ballet reflect a particular community . . . People want to feel as if their version belongs to them.”
In an ironic twist, many of the elements that made The Nutcracker only a middling success upon opening are exactly the things that endear it to American audiences. For one thing, 19th-century Russian balletgoers were not enthused about one of America’s favorite elements of traditional Nutcrackers: the casting of real children. It was all well and good to give ballet students small, serious roles in adult ballets, but Tchaikovsky’s contemporaries did not find the youthful enthusiasm of the littlest Nutcracker performers charming. One critic complained: “In the first scene, the entire stage is filled with children, who run about, blow their whistles, hop and jump, are naughty, and interfere with the oldsters dancing. In large amounts this is unbearable.” But for choreographer George Balanchine, who liked children (he often trained and taught the young dancers in his ballets himself), that energy was part of what made the ballet what it was. “If an adult is a good person, in his heart he is still a child,” Balanchine said in an interview about The Nutcracker – an idea that might not have resonated in 19th-century Russia as much as it did in 20th-century America, to the inhabitants of a young nation who revered the childlike heart of innocence around holiday time.
At heart the ballet’s childlike spirit and youthful protagonists are part of what make it such an American icon; its ascent to fame in the 50’s was a huge part of the rise of what we might call a nationwide sweep of holiday nostalgia; from films like Miracle on 34th Street and It’s a Wonderful Life, to the classic images of Norman Rockwell, to the iconic carols sung by Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, the mid-century American holiday experience took childhood innocence seriously. Adults deliberately strove to reconnect with the wonder they felt as children gazing at a sparkling Christmas tree, the dazzling candles of the menorah, waking up to the wonder of a fresh white snowfall. The Nutcracker – with its story of special holiday gifts, family celebrations, toys coming to life, a majestic Christmas tree, dancing flowers and candy confections, enchanted snowflakes, and a feisty little girl who steps outside the world of convention and reality into the fantasy world she has always dreamed of – was a perfect fit for an era of cultural shift, when the conflict and pressures of the real world made it all the more desirable for adults to give themselves a tiny window in the year to be dreamy-eyed, innocent kids again.