The Nutcracker wasn’t always considered quite such a box of delights

The enduring appeal of The Nutcracker. The ballet wasn’t always considered quite such a box of delights

18 December 2021

9:00 AM

18 December 2021

9:00 AM

E.T.A. Hoffmann’s tale of a young man turned into a novelty kitchen gadget by an evil rodent isn’t obvious dance material, and yet here we are, up to our plastic tiaras in sugar plums. Four Nutcrackers in London alone and an average of 200 productions, amateur and professional, across the Atlantic. How? Why?

Sharp pens greeted the 1892 St Petersburg première — ‘it’s a pity that so much fine music is expended on nonsense’ — and within two decades it was little more than a box of delights to be raided by directors and choreographers, blithely borrowing anything they fancied from Lev Ivanov’s choreography or Tchaikovsky’s ravishing, bittersweet score, regardless of context or key signatures. Anna Pavlova had pick-and-mix Tchaikovsky for the one-act Snowflakes ballet she took to New York in 1915. Diaghilev had Vaslav Nijinsky dance a solo to the Sugar Plum Fairy variation in 1911 and later used the same tinkling celeste sequence for the Lilac Fairy in his 1921 Sleeping Princess.

It wasn’t until 1934 that the two-act ballet had its first performance outside Russia when Ninette de Valois mounted it for what is now the Royal Ballet with the help of Nicholas Sergeyev, the former Imperial ballet regisseur who fled the Bolsheviks with the notations for all the great classics in his luggage. The 1934 Sadler’s Wells cast list for Casse-Noisettefeatured a 15-year-old ‘Margaret Fontes’ (guess who) as a snowflake together with Elsa Lanchester, Frankenstein’s bride-to-be, in the slinky ‘Danse Arabe’ (Sergeyev signed her up after seeing her acrobatic Ariel at the Old Vic). Top of the bill was Alicia Markova (née Alicia Marks) who would continue dancing her crystalline Sugar Plum Fairy for the rest of her long performing career. Markova has a great deal to answer for.

In 1950, with real sugar plums still on ration, the former Diaghilev ballerina mounted a new version for her fledgling London Festival Ballet and the company (now English National Ballet) has been dancing The Nutcracker in one guise or another every Christmas since. It ‘pays the bills’ (as Markova matter-of-factly put it). It also cross-subsidises less popular work and (with any luck) builds new audiences.

With its hummable score and child-friendly subject matter, The Nutcracker is generally regarded as the perfect gateway ballet to a lifetime’s addiction but the old St Petersburg grouses had a point: too much plot in the first half; not enough action in the second. Countless directors have wrestled with this inherent imbalance in the ballet’s structure. Dr Freud has been consulted (Nureyev, 1967); the bourgeois Nuremberg setting has been changed to a 1970s suburban drinks party (Mark Morris, 1991) or a miserable Victorian orphanage (Matthew Bourne, 1992) or even an Australian care home (Graeme Murphy, 1992). The witty Morris and Bourne versions are both regularly revived (Bourne’s has just embarked on a 23-week UK tour) but too much novelty can shorten a production’s shelf life. Gerald Scarfe’s garish, ‘design-led’ disaster for ENB in 2002 lasted only eight seasons — the mere blink of an eye in ballet terms — whereas Peter Wright’s sublime, button-backed productions for the Royal and Birmingham Royal Ballets have clocked up 68 years between them and are still going strong. Wright’s party scenes are fever dreams of seasonal bonhomie: a big beautiful house complete with starched servants, photogenic children, jolly friends and the tallest tree in the street.

‘Produced predominantly with children for children’. In 1892 maybe, but modern tots, unfamiliar with the concept of sitting still or keeping quiet, can be harder to please. They are fine with the Act One party scene — real children on stage, the tree grows, toys come to life and large, scary rodents beat everybody up — but can turn ugly during the pure-dance second half (‘Where did the rats go? What is the pink lady doing?’). The secret is thorough preparation (Tchaikovsky on a loop during the school run) and strict portion control. Most productions end the first half with little Clara being whisked away on a sledge or a balloon or a giant goose: tell them everyone lived happily ever after, send them home with papa and wheel in the mother-in-law who can coo over the Act Two divertissements — or carp over what’s been done to them.

Marius Petipa was unable to choreograph The Nutcracker as planned (laid low with erysipelas, since you ask) but he devised the detailed scenario, working to a tried and tested formula: pretty ladies making pretty patterns, a big fat pas de deux and plenty of lusty national dances: Russian, Chinese and Arabian. For Petipa, such exotic interludes were a must-have. They were seldom remotely authentic but they were a chance to show off your character artists and spice up the classroom vocabulary. But these flashes of local colour grow fainter every year.

Scottish Ballet’s director Christopher Hampson has promised that his Nutcracker revival (originally choreographed by Peter Darrell in 1973) will ‘remove elements of caricature’ and ‘rectify inappropriate cultural stereotypes’ (this from the man whose 2002 Nutcrackerfeatured Chinese takeaway delivery men on a tricycle). Meanwhile Kevin O’Hare’s Royal Ballet has been chasing brownie points (and newspaper column inches) by replacing the pointy-fingered Chinese dance with generic acrobats and shrinking the Arabian foursome to a duet on the grounds that three men and one woman had ‘harem overtones’. Mr O’Hare will correct me here but I’m not sure that’s how harems work. At the time of going to press, ENB’s annual Christmas treat had yet to open. Will they jump the other way and reinstate the bull whip in the ‘Danse Arabe’? I won’t hold my breath but I will be there just the same watching yet another jammy little Clara having the Best Christmas Ever.

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The Nutcracker is at the Royal Opera House (RB) until 8 January, the Coliseum (ENB) until 8 January, the Royal Albert Hall (BRB) from 28–31 December, at Sadler’s Wells (Matthew Bourne) until 30 January, and at the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh, and touring (Scottish Ballet), until 12 February.

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