The origin story of the festive favorite The Nutcracker

On this day, 130 years ago, a week before Christmas, a Russian audience in Saint Petersburg saw The Nutcracker for the first time. Now, when one thinks of the festive period, fantastic costumes and the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy cannot fail to come to mind. But, on its premiere anniversary, Express.co.uk takes a look at the ballet’s dark origin story and legacy that Russian critics would never have predicted.

The famous ballet we now know and love is based on a slightly sinister story written by the German fantasy and gothic author, ETA Hoffman, who was an influence on Edgar Allan Poe.

In Germany, a nutcracker is culturally significant, as it is believed to bring good luck and protect the home. However, nutcrackers are found in many cultures around the world; in fact, Henry VIII gave one to his wife, Anne Boleyn.

Hoffman wrote his 1816 book, The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, based on the boy’s toy, but it has some dark moments. The seven-year-old protagonist, Marie, for example, falls into a display case and severely cuts her arm.

And, a queen and a child are trapped inside the body of a huge nutcracker, the mice are evil, they engage in battles with dolls that magically come to life, and many of the characters are trapped in a curse.

In 1892, the choreographer Marius Pepita adapted the book into a ballet, as Peter Tchaikovsky had been given the task of writing a score for both an opera and a ballet.

While critics raved about the Russian composer’s music, described as “astonishingly rich in detailed inspiration,” many criticized the dance.

They were not happy with the dancers and the plot, and one reviewer simply said: “The Nutcracker, in any case, cannot be called a ballet. It does not satisfy a single one of the demands that are made of a ballet”.

The nutcracker was later dropped from the repertoire in 1905 after Russia was besieged by the brief and failed revolution.

READ MORE: The Nutcracker: The most popular ballet in the world

Balanchine’s version is the one most people would recognize today from other performances, either using his staging exactly or imitating it closely.

Presented and often performed on Christmas Eve, ballet is now a staple of the festive season, particularly in the US.

In fact, Nutcracker performances are very lucrative for many ballet companies. According to dance critic Lauren Gallagher, the San Francisco Ballet show “earns about 40 percent of the company’s ticket revenue each year.”

Similarly, Daniel J Wakin, writing in the New York Times, said: “A festive performance of The Nutcracker is generally the financial foundation of an American dance company.”

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