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History of The Nutcracker

Painted nutcracker in front of glittery red background Theater & Shows

No holiday season is complete without seeing a brilliant performance of The Nutcracker. Learn more about the history of The Nutcracker ballet and how it came to be a popular holiday production. 

As one of Tchaikovsky’s more prolific compositions, The Nutcracker is a tale of magic and wonder that delights all who see it live. Discover the history of The Nutcracker and the joy it brings to the holidays.

Origins of the Nutcracker

The Nutcracker ballet is based on French writer Alexandre Dumas’ adaptation of the original story by E.T.A. Hoffman, “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.” Hoffman’s story was part of a collection of children’s stories published in Germany. 

Pyotr Tchaikovsky completed the commission of the ballet with choreographers Marius Petipa and Leve Ivanov. The Nutcracker ballet debuted in 1892 at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia, but was met with mixed reviews and was considered by critics to be confusing and amateurish. More than 50 years later, Willam Christensen reinvented The Nutcracker story and the ballet made its American debut on Christmas Eve in 1944 at the San Francisco Ballet. 

In the decades since, The Nutcracker has become a Christmas tradition for many families and one of the most popular performances put on by ballet studios across the world. According to Daniel J. Wakin of the New York Times, The Nutcracker performance garners nearly 40% of yearly ticket revenues for major ballet companies. 

Along with the ballet, The Nutcracker story has been adapted for films such as The Nutcracker and the Four Realms (2018), which featured Misty Copeland, the first African-American principal dancer of the American Ballet Theatre. Other variations of the classic holiday tale include The Hip Hop Nutcracker, a contemporary dance spectacular set in New York City.

Plot of The Nutcracker

The story takes place in the Stahlbaum house on Christmas Eve, where the main character Clara (sometimes Maria/Marie) is gifted a nutcracker toy by the inventor Drosselmeyer. After her brother Fritz breaks the nutcracker, Clara is heartbroken but is comforted when Drosselmeyer swiftly fixes the toy. 

When Clara falls asleep that night, she is transported into a dream world where the nutcracker and other fantastical creatures come to life. Clara is caught in the midst of a fierce battle between the armies of the Mouse King and the Nutcracker Prince, who emerges victorious and whisks her away to a magical world filled with dolls and characters like the Sugar Plum Fairy and Mother Ginger. When Clara awakens, she is surprised to meet Drosselmeyer’s nephew who resembles her beloved Nutcracker prince. 

From late November to early January, The Nutcracker fans of all ages can go see the entire performance live, which is around two hours long with two acts separated by a brief intermission. The average runtime of the performance can differ depending on the ballet company or studio putting on the performance.

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About Tchaikovsky 

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was a Russian composer that was born in 1840 and died in 1893, a year after his composition of The Nutcracker score. Tchaikovsky composed his first song at the age of four and began taking piano lessons, familiarizing himself with the works of Frederic Chopin and Friederich Kalkbrenner. 

By age 17, Tchaikovsky developed a passion for Italian music and was also influenced by Mozart’s work, Don Giovanni. He was a student of the St. Petersburg Conservatory and in 1869, Tchaikovsky completed the overture of Romeo and Juliet, marking his first composition to gain international notoriety.

Tchaikovsky is best known for his trio of successful ballet compositions: Swan Lake (1876), The Sleeping Beauty (1890), and The Nutcracker (1892), all three popular productions put on by companies like the Russian National Ballet

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