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The Nutcracker in Context


by Mike Walker

“[American ballet] companies are so cautious in their programming that they have effectively reduced an art form to a rotation of over-roasted chestnuts that no one can justifiably croon about. The tyranny of The Nutcracker is emblematic of how dull and risk-averse American ballet has become.”

—Sarah Kaufman, dance critic for The Washington Post, in a 2009 article

With those words, Sarah Kaufman—one of the most-respected of dance critics in the world—launched into an article detailing how she believed The Nutcracker to be a serious issue, a problem indeed, for American ballet. The much-loved Christmas-time classic she felt had become troublesome by the very fact of its popularity and overwhelming frequency of performance by American ballet companies large and small. It had for many Americans become the only ballet they had ever seen and for some dancers even, the primary one in which they had danced. It was certain that if you were involved in ballet in the United States, you would encounter The Nutcracker in some form sooner or later, and probably sooner at that. Kaufman’s 2009 article was met with both agreement and argument in the States and elsewhere but it ushered in an important discussion about The Nutcracker that went beyond the confines of America and was of ample concern in Europe, also. While on both sides of the Atlantic The Nutcracker has become on of the most-popular of all ballets, in the United States the American approach often has been one of ballet schools and youth ballets presenting The Nutcracker as a safe, audience-winning, heart-warming introduction to classical ballet for a diverse audience whereas in Europe—especially Eastern Europe and of course, most of all in Russia—The Nutcracker is taken very seriously and seen to rank with ballet classics such as Giselle and Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet.

Starting the tenth of December this year, the Croatian National Theatre Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker will open, presenting this classic in Zagreb by the best dancers in Croatia and in the nation’s finest performance space. Derek Deane choreographed this production based on the original Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov ballet and the famous music by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. While the ballet was only a moderate success at its 1892 Saint-Petersburg première, the score almost at once became quite popular in Europe, especially Russia, while in America The Nutcracker was first performed in San Francisco but it wasn’t until it benefited from George Balanchine’s 1954 version in New York City that it started to become the all-popular and ever-performed sensation that Kaufman wrote about in her article quoted above.  Both Saint-Petersburg’s Mariinsky Ballet and the Bolshoi in Moscow have put on exceptional (as would be expected) performances of The Nutcracker and it has gained a loyal following and a place of pride on stage with the leading ballet companies of London, Paris, and elsewhere. For Eastern Europe, where most choreographers and company directors working today grew up on the grand tradition of Russian ballet, The Nutcracker alongside the other Tchaikovsky classics Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake, has always held the promise of something nearly native taking the world by storm. The origins of The Nutcracker were in a story by German writer E.T.A. Hoffmann but Tchaikovsky was able to seal the ballet as his own with his innovative yet immediately recognizable score. It is that music that is heard alongside the traditional carols in every nation where Christmas  is celebrated and where Christmas music has become something of a tradition unto itself.

Tchaikovsky Nutcracker
One of the issues Kaufman is most critical of in her article on The Nutcracker is that the ballet is in every sense European and Eurocentric, that American ballet as an art form has promoted a foreign ballet to the apex of its very involvement in ballet and by doing so, ignored innovations in ballet native to the United States. Yet that said, ballet itself is of course also European, growing out of its origins in the posh courts of the Italian Renaissance and developing in France and Russia until became the art form it is today. Perhaps because of its non-native status and also the fact that the general approach to The Nutcracker most-popular in the States today is that of George Balanchine from 1954, we do not often see much true innovation or variance at all in the standard production of The Nutcracker in America now. However, in Croatia and elsewhere, we do, just as we see innovation with Giselle or Sylvia or Sleeping Beauty, even. Putting on The Nutcracker nowadays in Croatia is not child’s play as it is too often in the United States, but instead it is an arena where the best of Croatian ballet can square off against the best of Russian ballet or that of any other nation. Dian Tchobanov will conduct the orchestra and provide the ballet with the full, magical, robust musical support such a score deserves and really, demands, while Derek Deane’s famous choreography will take center stage. The Croatian National Theatre doesn’t play safe nor does it stick to either the tried and true or the easy, as its current and forthcoming offerings in opera include no less than Tosca and Aida, two very expensive and demanding operas to stage. While the Croatian National Theatre has placed a strong emphasis in recent years on native Croatian-authored works, its selection of foreign opera, drama, and ballet is also second-to-none and demanding of the highest of standards. To be sure, the production of The Nutcracker is fitting for the Christmas season, but it is also a selection that comes with unwritten but widely-known expectations from savvy European audiences.

The circumstances of the creation of The Nutcracker deserve mention when we speak of the circumstances of its production. Tchaikovsky wrote the score for The Nutcracker to produce a ballet to be performed in tandem with his new opera, Iolanta, which itself was based on a story by Danish writer Henrik Hertz much as The Nutcracker was based upon the work of the German author Hoffmann. The Nutcracker was designed to show off the renowned talents of the Mariinsky Ballet and included performances by children who were students of the Imperial Ballet School of Saint-Petersburg (now the Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet) in the roles of the child character of the narrative itself. The Nutcracker was not just an elaborate ballet for the sake of continuing the style of ballet set forth by the composer in Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty, but to work well with the tone of the lyric opera, Iolanta. Moreover, Tchaikovsky had written in letters to friends how impressed he was with the 1876 ballet Sylvia, especially in terms of its score, and how that ballet influenced his approach to his own efforts in ballet. Sylvia’s score by Léo Delibes brought music for ballet to a higher level and focused on weaving the melodic structure of the score more tightly into the fabric of the choreography and narrative from the onset of composition instead of leaving the direction of choreography mainly up to the choreographer in response to the music. This approach in many ways responded to the patterns set in both contemporary orchestral music and opera, which were two areas where Tchaikovsky had especial expertise and fame. Though Tchaikovsky was already quite well-known and respected, by 1892 Russian romantic music was changing, becoming even more ornate, and young, exceptional, composers such as Alexander Glazunov were on the rise and competition was mounting. With younger, upcoming composers such as Rachmaninoff and Medtner bringing piano ever to the center of attention at the turn of the century, Tchaikovsky spanned an era of mainly orchestral and operatic focus into one of the grand romantic concerto. He is, of course, today alongside Rachmaninoff probably the best-known of the Russian composers but even then, a great deal of his repute in the West rests on The Nutcracker.

Croatian National Theatre

Croatian National Theatre

For the Croatian National Theatre production of The Nutcracker, look for a basis in the traditional approach to the narrative, staging, and costuming and above all for the music to sound grand, full, and fantastic and the dancing to represent the technical, demanding, precise nature that the Mariinsky Ballet has always been known for, as it was the Mariinsky’s famed depth of physical talent and adroit style that the original choreography was prepared to showcase. I seriously doubt that Derek Deane will move away from that tradition but will instead echo it as much as possible in his own approach. This is, therefore, a perfect opportunity for anyone in Zagreb during the December performances of The Nutcracker to see this ballet that is possibly the best-known, best-loved and as Sarah Kaufman’s analysis makes clear, so iconic a ballet that it may have even created a host of problems via its own intense and lasting popularity. To respond to Kaufman’s question from three years ago, should The Nutcracker still be showered with such attention and performed so often, so widely? Yes, it would seem, but only when the companies putting on a production can offer the caliber of talent in terms of dancers, set and costumer designers, and the provision of a grand theatre space and full orchestra as can the Croatian National Theatre. Then, with the proper context and the skillful ability to meet the technical demands of the production, The Nutcracker makes perfect sense for the season. Kaufman spoke of ballet companies being “cautious” with their selection of programming, which may be true in the States, but with The Nutcracker in Croatia and elsewhere in Europe the ballet is not a sure-shot at all, but rather a gamble in the sense that the production cannot afford to come up substandard in any regard and the expense of putting it on stage is severe enough to discourage all but the most confident and able of companies. Like an opera such as Tosca, it is a hefty work that has the innate power to win over audiences and truly thrill them, but only when performed at the apex of what a company can produce. Because of that native difficulty, The Nutcracker may just be the type of signature production that could make a greater name for the Croatian National Theatre Ballet, a company that deserves to be better-known across Europe.

For more on the Croatian National Theatre Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker, click here.

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