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Cracking Open Nuts of Trivia on The Nutcracker

Nutcracker Facts To Chew On

Everyone has their touchstone that truly marks the holiday season.

It could be Black Friday shopping, or when the first tree lot opens, making grandmother’s latkes or gathering around the television for Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer or A Charlie Brown Christmas.

In this writer’s home, it was when dad spotted the commercial with Santa riding the Norelco shaver over the snow – “Noelco.” Nothing says holidays like a men’s grooming tool, am I right?

Thankfully, for many others, nothing says holidays more than their annual pilgrimage to the brilliant spectacle that is the Nutcracker, performed by countless ballet companies around the globe – including our own Next Generation Ballet.

It just isn’t Christmas without a wide-eye Clara, a festive, magical growing tree as the centerpiece of a glorious holiday party, the noble toy Nutcracker-turned-Prince fighting the Rat King and a fairy tale visit to the Land of Snow with the Sugar Plum Fairy and a celebration of dances.

Next Generation Ballet’s Nutcracker (Photo: Soho Images)

And if you can’t see it live on stage, and we recommend you do, PBS is airing a new orchestral production of The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, performed by the Royal Scottish National at 9 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 14, and narrated by Tony® winner Alan Cumming. If you miss this airing, look for it ON DEMAND.

Composer Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky actually released the score, called The Nutcracker Suite, in a concert setting nine months before the ballet premiered and the music was instantly embraced.

The Nutcracker ballet, alas, didn’t receive the same praise when it premiered in St. Petersburg, Russia, in December 1892, a combined effort by Tchaikovsky, Ivan Vsevolozhsky (director of the Mariinsky Theater) and Marius Petipa (choreographer). The harsh criticism, such as “ambivalent dancers” to “too many children” on stage, postponed the ballet from becoming the stalwart holiday performer it is today.

All of this prompted us to seek out other nuggets of interesting lore about the famed ballet, such as these 10 things you might not know about the Nutcracker ballet:

1. Depending on where in the world you see The Nutcracker, Clara isn’t always the name of the heroine. There were two versions of the original story, The Nutcracker and the Mouse King by E.T.A. Hoffmann and an adaptation by Alexandre Dumas. In the story, the heroine is known as Maria or Marie and her doll was named Clara. She is called Mariche in Germany and Masha in Russia.

The tree in Next Generation Ballet’s Nutcracker grows and is made of individually dyed ostrich feathers. 

2. The original working titles for The Nutcracker were The Christmas Tree and The Fir Tree.

3. The story wasn’t initially intended for children. The Rat King was a hideous seven-headed creature; the battles between the toy soldiers and mice were gruesomely described, The Mouse Queen’s children are trapped and killed one-by-one by an angry princess.

The Rat King in Next Generation Ballet’s Nutcracker. (Photo: Soho Images)

4. Tchaikovsky didn’t think it was his best work. He thought his composition for Nutcracker was “infinitely poorer” than his work on Sleeping Beauty. Nutcracker was the last of his three ballets – the first being Swan Lake. He died less than a year after its debut, having never seen its success.

5. A newly invented musical instrument, the celesta, is the twinkling sound you hear in “The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.” Tchaikovsky found the piano hybrid with a bell-like tone while in Paris and “smuggled” it to Russia to create the character’s unique music accompaniment, which has been described as sounding like “sprays of a fountain.”

A celesta with the back cover removed. (Photo: Schiedmayer Celesta GmbH)

6. The ballet took 42 years to migrate from Russia, first being performed in Europe – England to be exact – in 1934.

7. The Nutcracker was first performed in the United States in 1944, by the San Francisco Opera Ballet. It took another 10 years to get to New York City where it became a full-on American holiday tradition after being choreographed by George Balanchine in 1954. He used the “best parts” of the original choreography, adding twists and new characters.

Celina Cummings in Willam Christensen’s Nutcracker, 1944. © San Francisco Ballet (Photo courtesy SFMPD.)

8. There have been classical productions of the ballet by legendary dancers and choreographers, such as Rudolf Nureyev (1963) Mikail Baryshnikov (1977) and Matthew Bourne (1992) among others.

9. The Nutcracker has made some notable appearances in offbeat pop culture as well:

10. Straz’s Next Generation Ballet will perform Nutcracker Dec. 17-19 with principal dancers from American Ballet Theatre and many, many Patel students in featured roles. For tickets contact our ticket office at (813) 229-7827 or go online strazcenter.org.

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