‘The Nutcracker’ was originally a flop. Here’s how it became a beloved Christmas tradition
It wasn’t until an American resurgence of the work a half-century later — led by Ballet West founder and Utah native Willam Christensen — that ‘The Nutcracker’ started to become a holiday tradition
SALT LAKE CITY — Imagine a time before The Beatles, LeBron James or Lady Gaga, when the world’s A-list celebrities were often military heroes or classical composers.
Russian musician Pyotr Tchaikovsky was among the elite, writing classical tunes that made the ladies not scream, exactly, but throw extra flowers, perhaps? One of his last commissions turned out to be his most famous — a score to compliment Marius Petipa’s new 1892 “Nutcracker” ballet, now immortalized as part of the holiday musical canon the world over.
As Utah’s Ballet West Orchestra tunes up for another season playing 30 performances of Tchaikovsky’s score alongside hundreds of professional and amateur dancers, its director, Jared Oaks, insists he experiences fresh enthusiasm “with every night’s first downbeat” thanks to the larger-than-life score.
“Tchaikovsky was a fantastic storyteller. He carries us through this story with such memorable melodies and motifs,” he said. “It’s playful and colorful where it needs to be, and it also has some really weighty and emotional moments.”
It’s a German short story that was first brought to life on stage thanks to a French choreographer and a Russian composer. But “The Nutcracker” has turned out to be as American as apple pie.
That’s because Petipa’s premiere was actually a flop. One critic even wrote that “‘The Nutcracker’ cannot in any event be called a ballet. It does not satisfy even one of the demands made of a ballet.”
It wasn’t until an American resurgence of the work a half-century later — led by Ballet West founder and Utah native Willam Christensen — that “The Nutcracker” started to become a holiday tradition.
In 1944, Christensen staged the first complete performance of “The Nutcracker” in the United States with the San Fransisco Ballet — a successful version that has gone on to become a Ballet West staple. Ten years later, famed choreographer George Balanchine staged “The Nutcracker” with the New York City Ballet. By the 1960s, “The Nutcracker” was a Christmas tradition throughout the country.
The classic story centers on young Clara, who helps her beloved Nutcracker defeat the Mouse King, releasing him from a spell and returning him from nutcracker to prince. In gratitude, he invites her to journey to his homeland of the Sugar Plum Fairy, where Clara is entertained by a court that includes Russian, Chinese, Arabian and Spanish dancers as well as waltzing flowers, dancing bees and mirlitons (flute dancers).
When Petipa approached Tchaikovsky for “The Nutcracker,” the composer wasn’t initially interested in the commission and wasn’t even sure it was up to snuff upon its completion.
“His thinking was that ‘Sleeping Beauty’ was a much better ballet,” Oaks said. “But he was always hard on himself.”
Perhaps no one would be more surprised than the composer himself to learn this work would outrank “Sleeping Beauty” in popularity — after all, notes from the choreographer were so rigid (down to the tempo and number of bars) as to remove much artistic license, which Tchaikovsky was said to have resented.
Instead Tchaikovsky chose to be revolutionary in other ways, like in his use of a brand new instrument called the celesta, which became the voice of the Sugar Plum Fairy. The ballet’s 1892 premiere marked the instrument’s international breakthrough.
“He wrote to his publisher about its divinely beautiful sound, which he’d discovered in France, and how it could only be purchased by the inventor,” said Oaks, who added Tchaikovsky didn’t want the word to get out and be scooped by his competitors. “He said he was afraid Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov would find out about it.”
Tchaikovsky used the celesta to characterize the Sugar Plum Fairy because of its “heavenly sweet sound,” although it’s used several times in the second act. Modern audiences may also recognize the celesta as the starring instrument in “Hedwig’s Theme” from the “Harry Potter” series, and the theme song from “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”
“It’s a fun instrument that we actually use fairly often,” Oaks said. “We used it in our last ballet, ‘Le Chant du Rossignol,’ and we’ll use it again for ‘Bolero’ in the spring.”
Oaks, however, seems to have a soft spot for the weightier compositions within “The Nutcracker.” Tchaikovsky’s Adagio — the slow movement in which the Sugar Plum Fairy and Cavalier dance — is surprisingly melancholy for such a musical confection.
“His sister had recently died when he wrote this music. I’ve also read that he wrote this with her in mind,” said Oaks of the composition, which is known for its unique descending scale melody. “Although it is very melancholy, it also has these triumphant sections. The overarching emotion, though, is weighty.”
Oaks pointed out that the Adagio isn’t featured in the popular “Nutcracker Suite” — a 20-minute selection of the ballet’s most familiar tunes.
“There’s a lot of music in ‘The Nutcracker’ that you wouldn’t hear if you didn’t go to the ballet,” he said. “To get the real Nutcracker experience, you have to go.”
As Ballet West gets ready to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Christensen’s production — America’s first “Nutcracker” and the longest-running in the country — each participant must consciously keep the 30 performances (what Oaks calls a “monthlong train ride”) fresh.
“For each performance, I ask myself: ‘What can I do differently? How can I shape something better? What messages can I deliver that are new from the podium?” he said.
Oaks also takes a page from his mentor, Terence Kern, Ballet West’s longtime music director who retired in 2012 and died in 2015.
“Terry reminded me that each performance is some child’s very first time seeing ‘The Nutcracker,’” Oaks said. “He told me: ‘Don’t forget the magic of it.’”
With so many children in the audience during “Nutcracker” season, Oaks said it’s hard to forget.
“I enjoy the occasional outburst from a kid in the audience when they react to something they see onstage,” he said. “The orchestra loves that, too. Everyone is smiling in the pit when we hear it.”
If you go …
What: Ballet West presents Willam Christensen’s “The Nutcracker”
When: Dec. 7-26, times vary
Where: Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South
How much: $42-$129