Clara Stahlbaum a young girl with an active imagination
Fritz Stahlbaum her brother
Herr Drosselmeyer a toymaker and magician
The Nutcracker a doll who becomes a prince
The Rat King the leader of the mice
Snow Queen and King rulers of the Land of Snowflakes
Sugarplum Fairy and Candy Cavalier leaders of the Land of Sweets
Minnie Clara’s imaginary poodle
The Nutcracker, one of the most popular ballets of all time, is about the magic and mystery of the holiday season. This is the time of year when kids dare to dream big about what wonderful gift may come their way. Clara, the main character in the story, does more than hope for a big box under the tree. She imagines an incredible world filled with toys that grow bigger than life, where there are battles between a Rat King and a Nutcracker, and where she soars off to delightful adventures in enchanted lands with amazing inhabitants. And we get to go along for the ride!
Here’s the basic shell of the story:
The action begins in the Stahlbaum family home where a holiday party is underway. The kitchen is busy with maids, butlers, and a chef that bustle around preparing for the party. Clara and her brother Fritz try to help out, but are better at getting in the way.
Guests enter the living room where there is a beautiful, decorated tree. The party gets interesting when a mysterious toymaker, Herr Drosselmeyer, shows up. He wows the children with magic tricks, and opens up boxes with life-sized dolls that can do incredible things. Clara, taken with one of the dancing dolls, asks if she can have it for her own.
When her mom won’t let her have the doll, Drosselmeyer gives her something else instead: a Nutcracker. Happy with her Nutcracker, Clara dances around showing it off until Fritz, in a fit of jealousy, grabs her toy and breaks it. Clara is upset but Herr Drosselmeyer helps mend it. The party continues with dancing and more gift giving.
After everyone has gone to bed, Clara sneaks downstairs to check on her beloved toy but finds things have turned a bit more sinister. Many pairs of beady eyes stare at her, and she suddenly hears the scrape of scampering feet. As the clock strikes midnight, the mice reveal themselves and try to take her Nutcracker away. Drosselmeyer appears and waves his hands over the scene. The tree, furniture, and toys magically grow and a battle begins between the mice and toy soldiers. The Nutcracker, now life-size, fights the Rat King. With the help of Clara’s imaginary dog, Minnie, the Nutcracker defeats the Rat King.
The Nutcracker then transforms into a handsome prince and leads Clara into the Land of Snowflakes where they meet the Snow Queen and King and a flurry of dancing flakes. As the snowstorm subsides, a beautiful flying ornament arrives, carrying the couple off to another magical place.
A new land appears that is full of desserts and fancy frosted cakes. This is the Kingdom of the Sugar Plum Fairy, which attracts people from all over the world because it is the sweetest place on earth. The Sugar Plum Fairy is dancing with her partner, the Candy Cavalier, when Clara and the Nutcracker prince arrive. They are welcomed with sweets and performances from various countries.
Finally, Clara and the Nutcracker prince head home. Clara wakes up holding her Nutcracker doll, wondering if it is all a dream.
Check This Out...
Artistic Director Victoria Morgan wants ballet to be relevant to people today, even though it first began in the royal courts of France and Italy around 400 years ago. And while ballet may seem formal and aristocratic, it can communicate everyday conflicts, like those between Fritz and Clara. Morgan has also added many humorous touches to the ballet. Watch for moments when ballet isn’t “regal” at all. You may be surprised.
Throughout the ballet, pantomime is used to tell its story. In the Land of the Sweets, for example, the Nutcracker recounts his victory over the Rat King by using gesture. Pay attention to how he communicates what happened, and how everyone celebrates his victory afterward.
In Act II, Morgan stays true to the classic ballet version by including Russian, Spanish, Chinese, and Arabian dances in the Land of Sweets. But Morgan makes this Nutcracker her own by adding Mirlipoos (a bizarre mix of dancing poodles dressed like 1920s bathing beauties), and a giant chicken that lays an egg on stage, Really, no kidding!
Watch for moments when Drosselmeyer uses magic tricks in the ballet—like making things appear and disappear and how he “changes” Clara’s grandmother in Act I.
Think About This...
The Glass Slipper
Ballet is an art form that has many more women than men. You may notice in the Nutcracker’s larger scenes that the corps de ballet, or dancers that perform together as a group instead of as soloists, are all female. (In smaller scenes, the corps de ballet includes both men and women dancers.)
Here’s something to think about: Despite the number of women dancers in ballet, there are relatively few that are leaders of companies or head choreographers. Victoria Morgan, Artistic Director and CEO of Cincinnati Ballet, is one of them. She hopes that other girls who are interested in ballet know that being a ballerina is one career option, but being the director of a dance company is another.
Take Action: Cracking The Nut
The story ends with Clara waking up and holding her Nutcracker doll. She wonders: Was this all a dream? What do you think? Have a discussion with a friend with one of you arguing that it was all a dream, and the other arguing that the events you saw onstage really happened to Clara. Which one of you has the stronger argument? Make sure to include concrete examples from the ballet to back up your position. Take a video of your debate and post it to Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr, Snapchat, or any platform of your choice. Use #crackingthenut as your hashtag.
N00b Guide to Ballet
Clueless about ballet? We’ve got you covered.
(If you’re already a ballet fan, skip this and move on to the next section.)
Ever wonder how ballet began? Well…vive la France!
Dancing was entertainment in the royal courts of Italy and France, and was largely about telling tales of gods and heroes from mythology. But when the French King Louis XIV came along in 1643, he took court dancing to a whole new level. He loved to dance so much that he took lessons every day, starred in many productions, and started a ballet school. That’s why the steps ballet students learn are in French.
Then, as now, all things French were fashionable. Ballet schools based on the French model sprang up all across Europe in the 1700s. Choreographers began exploring ballets that told stories including tales of princes and princesses, foreign countries, and romantic entanglements. Moreover, as ballet dancing became more skilled and complex, costuming changed. Gone were the long, courtly gowns and heeled shoes. Dancers needed shorter skirts to allow them to better move. Soft slippers enabled dancers to jump and turn, ultimately leading to the pointe shoe, a slipper with a stiff box in the toe that we see ballerinas wear today. This specialized shoe allows women to stand up on their toes en pointe, making them look taller, and their legs look that much longer.
Wait…what about the Russians?
Peter the Great, who ruled Russia from 1672–1725, appreciated all the latest fads and fashions from Western Europe. He invited dance masters from France and Italy to teach Russian nobility how to “get down,” ballet style, on the dance floor. Marius Petipa, offsite link, (PET-ee-pah), a French dancer, was appointed ballet master at the Mariinsky Theater in in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1871. Many of the famous ballets known today were created by Petipa during his tenure there, including Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, and The Nutcracker. Petipa trained Russian-born dancers for his ballets instead of importing talent from foreign countries. His fame as a choreographer and his emphasis on Russian dancers helped establish a strong tradition of ballet in Russia that continues to this day.
Story ballets created by Petipa and others during the late 1800s were spectacles. They included large casts and lots of breaks in the action to showcase dancing. Since then, ballet has continued to evolve. Some later choreographers have scrapped Petipa’s emphasis on spectacle and story for simpler, more abstract ballets.George Balanchine, offsite link, (BAL-uhn-cheen), a famous Russian-born choreographer who came to America in 1933, favored abstract ballets that were more about movement than telling a story. He was instrumental in establishing the New York City Ballet.
Ballet may have started out as entertainment for aristocrats and mainly performed by men, but it has clearly changed since its early days. Today, ballet is performed for everyone (think The Nutcracker) and has a majority of female performers, including the star, or prima ballerina.
Want to learn more about theater and what it can do? Check out these links:
History of Ballet
For a good history of ballet and the rise of the ballerina
Petipa and Ballet
For more info on the choreographer and Russian ballet history
Ballet is built on a specific set of body positions and movements designed to make the dancer appear graceful and elegant. Learn more about the ballet positions and steps, and try them out yourself.
Or visit our Related Resources (to the right of this page)
Nerd Guide to Ballet
(If you don't have your ballet basics down, grand jeté over to our n00b guide.)
Looking to learn more about the world of ballet? Maybe take your first steps toward a career on stage? Here are a few tips to get you started.
Professional dancers often say they had no other choice than to become dancers; there was nothing else they wanted to do. You have to have serious drive and dedication to seek a career as a ballet dancer, since it requires long hours of rehearsal (think Olympic athlete) and years of devotion to possess the level of skill that ballet dancers must bring to the stage. Even with all that, there’s no guarantee you’ll make it into a company, because they are so competitive. So what can you do to move forward, if you gotta dance?
- Take classes. There is no substitute for being in the dance studio. Find a dance class in your area, and start talking to your teacher and other students about opportunities to perform or to help out backstage. The more experience you get, the more you’ll know about all aspects of a dance production.
- Read up on dance. You may want to get magazines dedicated to the young dancer, or read some autobiographies about being a prima ballerina to get a feeling for what the life of a dancer is really like.
- Hit social media/go online. You can find a lot online about dance companies, choreographers, dancers, and the works they perform. Famous dancers often have social media sites where you can follow them and even get advice. Do some digging and get better informed.
- Look ahead. If you’re getting ready for college, think about attending a school that has a good dance program. There are many ways to be involved in dance that aren’t all about performing. You may decide teaching dance is your thing, or you may decide that helping to manage a dance company would be cool. You may even choose to write about dance.
If you’re already advanced in ballet, you can learn more about the professional world of dance through the Kennedy Center’s career-oriented programs:
The Kennedy Center Ballet Class Series
This series gives local advanced high school students the opportunity to study with each of the major ballet companies performing at the Kennedy Center each a season.
Exploring Ballet With Suzanne Farrell
Each summer, students from around the country come to the nation’s capital to for three weeks of intense study with one of the most important ballerinas of the 20th century.
Or visit our Related Resource (to the right of this page)
Choreography by Victoria Morgan
Music by Pyotr llyich Tchaikovsky
Parents and Teachers: We've Got You Covered
Lots of Nuts to Crack
The first performance of The Nutcracker took place in Russia in 1892. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (pronounced chy-KOFF-skee) adapted the ballet from a story called “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King,” by German author E.T.A. Hoffmann. Marius Petipa (PEH-tee-PAH), and his assistant Lev Ivanov created the choreography. Surprisingly, the first performance of the ballet was not deemed a success, and 25 years passed before anyone outside of Russia performed it.
A complete version of the work was not performed in the United States until 1944 when The Nutcracker was produced by the San Francisco Ballet with choreography by William Christiansen. It was the San Francisco Ballet that began the tradition of presenting the work on an annual basis, and does so to this day. The themes of gift giving, family gatherings, and dancing snowflakes were a natural connection to the holiday season.
While The Nutcracker may have been born in Russia, it has certainly adapted to its American home. Not only has it become an annual holiday tradition, but the ballet, in all of its variations, has come to reflect the character of our country—a mix of many ethnicities and ideologies.
There are many versions of the ballet, including one by New York City Ballet choreographer George Balanchine. This version was created in 1954 and televised shortly after. A film version was made in 1993. This ballet is performed by the New York City Ballet every season and is perhaps the most recognized.
Other choreographers have altered the original ballet to reflect changing cultural concerns or interests. Mark Morris created The Hard Nut in 1991, setting the ballet in 1960s suburbia. His version challenged traditional male and female roles, and features both men and women in tutus and pointe shoes.
African American choreographers have taken on the popular ballet in a way that better reflects their experience. Donald Byrd’s 1995 version, called the Harlem Nutcracker, combines jazz music and gospel with Tchaikovsky’s score, and adds hip hop, salsa, and jazz dance to the ballet’s choreography.
For more on the history of The Nutcracker:
Moscow Ballet's History of The Nutcracker
How The Nutcracker Colonized American Ballet
No Sugar Plums Here: The Dark, Romantic Roots of The Nutcracker
For more information about different versions of The Nutcracker:
Finding the Right ‘Nutcracker’ for You and Yours
Elle magazine, Inside 3 Very Different Versions of 'The Nutcracker'
Okay, you’re officially ready for Cincinnati Ballet’s The Nutcracker.