So, What’s Going On?
Hands down one of the most popular ballets of all time,
The Nutcracker is all about the magic and mystery of the holiday season. This is the time of year when children dare to dream big about what wonderful gift may come their way. But Marie, the main character in this story, does more than hope for a big box under her tree. She imagines an incredible world filled with toys that grow larger than life, where there are battles between a Mouse King and a Nutcracker, and where she soars off to amazing adventures in enchanted lands with unusual inhabitants.
By The Way: The very first Nutcracker was choreographed by Marius Petipa (pronounced PET-ee-pah) and performed in Russia in 1892. Although it wasn’t a big hit at first, choreographers kept returning to the ballet, and by the 1960s, The Nutcracker had become a popular Christmastime tradition (especially in the United States).
Photo: A scene from the Mariinsky Theatre’s original production of
The Nutcracker in 1892.
For Your Information: The Atlanta Ballet version of The Nutcracker that you’ll see at the Kennedy Center was created in 2018. It follows the original ballet’s basic story while adding bold new sets, costumes, and video projections, plus contemporary choreography—but more on that later. For now, let’s crack this nut open. The Story in a Nutshell
It’s Christmas Eve and the Stahlbaum family is throwing a holiday party at their home. Young Marie Stahlbaum welcomes the guests, including her mysterious godfather Drosselmeier (pronounced DROS-sel-MY-er), who makes Christmas presents for his nieces and nephews every year. This year, Drosselmeier brings Marie an unusual gift: a nutcracker doll. During the party, however, Marie sneaks off to read her favorite book.
Photo: Drosselmeier reveals the nutcracker doll. Credit: Kim Kenney.
Photo: Marie admires her nutcracker doll. Credit: Gene Schiavone.
After the party, Marie curls up in a chair in her room with her new nutcracker doll and falls asleep. When she awakes, she sees that her dolls have come alive, and everything has grown in size—including Marie, who’s now an adult. Suddenly, an army of mice surrounds Marie, just as Drosselmeier appears and the nutcracker doll comes to life. And with that…a fierce battle begins between the evil Mouse King and the Nutcracker to save Marie.
Photo: Drosselmeier and the Mouse King after the battle. Credit: Gene Schiavone.
As his reward for battling with the Mouse King, Drosselmeier transforms the Nutcracker into a handsome prince. And as snow begins to fall, Marie and her prince begin their wondrous journey through a winter wonderland before setting off on more enchanted adventures.
Drosselmeier makes a spectacular entrance and reveals a world of books flying through the air. He selects one special book—the same flower-filled book Marie was reading earlier that she used to fight off the mouse army. Marie and the Nutcracker Prince arrive and join a group of dancing flowers. Suddenly, the book grows huge in size, and the Mouse King and his army reappear. Drosselmeier prepares the Nutcracker Prince for another battle, where he will defeat the Mouse King with his sword. (Fun fact: In most other
Nutcracker productions, the mice appear only in the first act.)
After the battle, Drosselmeier invites Marie and the Nutcracker Prince back into his mysterious world, taking them on an adventure through the pages of the gigantic storybook to meet characters from countries around the world, including Spain, China, and Russia. They witness bullfights, snake charmers, and many more exciting sights.
Photo: The magical flower garden. Credit: Gene Schiavone.
Photo: The Russian dance (or “Trepak”). Credit: Kim Kenney.
On their way back from this enchanted world, the Nutcracker Prince asks Marie to stay with him. But Drosselmeier separates them, holding onto Marie as the Nutcracker Prince departs.
Photo: Marie and the Nutcracker Prince at their final dance. Credit: Gene Schiavone.
Marie finds herself waking up. As she holds her nutcracker doll, she realizes that everything must come to an end, but she’s delighted with her memories of a world filled with beautiful music and adventures.
Photo: Marie lovingly holds her nutcracker doll. Airi Igarashi. Credit: Gene Schiavone.
Marie Stahlbaum, a young girl who loves books and dreams big Fritz Stahlbaum, Marie’s brother Drosselmeier, Marie’s mysterious godfather who has magical abilities The Nutcracker, a doll who is transformed into a prince Mouse King, the leader of an evil army of mice Other Characters: the Stahlbaum family and their friends, an army of rats, and a variety of storybook characters What to Look and Listen for
Creating an original production like this one—with brand-new sets, costumes, and video projections—requires many parts to come together as one. To make it all happen, many people had to work tirelessly to pull everything together. (It also takes a lot of money: Making this production cost $3.7 million.) Read on to learn more about each piece of this
Nutcracker puzzle and what to look and listen for during the performance.
First, let’s talk set design. Many versions of
The Nutcracker have a single backdrop for all of the dances in the second act. In this production, however, there are video projections shown on a giant book that flips pages. This lets the scenery change quickly as Marie meets characters from across the globe.
Photo: One of the many colorful video projections in the second act. Credit: Kim Kenney.
These projections were created by Finn Ross, a video designer from Scotland. In 2005, he won the Tony Award® for Best Scenic Design of a Play for the Broadway play
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. He has also worked on other Broadway shows including Frozen, Mean Girls, and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.
Photo: Video projection by Finn Ross in
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Photo by Joan Marcus.
But the unusual set design doesn’t stop there. In other
Nutcrackers, it’s common for a Christmas tree to grow onstage, but Atlanta Ballet’s version takes this magical scene in a whole new direction. During this performance, the set pieces—a giant armchair, cabinet, and storybook, all designed by Tom Pye—add to the magic. In the first act, watch how these objects grow to a massive size after Marie falls asleep.
Photo: Construction of the huge armchair for the first act. Look closely to see if you can spot the man sitting on top of the chair for a sense of scale. Credit: CTS.
Photo: Production crew move the giant cabinet onstage. Credit: Kim Kenney.
Now on to the choreography. The dancing in this version has been created by choreographer Yuri Possokhov (POS-soh-kov) in a way that is very different from previous productions. Although Possokhov was trained in classical ballet at both the Bolshoi Ballet in Russia and the San Francisco Ballet, his own approach is less traditional. His choreography flows more than classical ballet does as the dancers never stop moving to regain their balance. Watch for how the steps connect seamlessly in his
Learn more about Possokhov
at Possokhov’s official website.
Yet, one of the most famous highlights of this ballet comes in Act II when a collection of short dances called
divertissements (dee-vehr-tees-MAHN) take the stage. Intended to purely entertain instead of advancing the story’s plot, these short dances were common in Romantic-era ballets often employed to showcase a dancer’s technical skill. In this collection, the dancing is inspired by different parts of the world, including Spain, Russia, China, and France.
Check out the following scenes from these dances:
Photo: The Spanish dance. Ashley Wegman & Lucas Labrador. Credit: Gene Schiavone.
Photo: The snake charmer dance. Monika Haczkiewicz & Keaton Leier. Credit: Gene Schiavone.
Photo: The Chinese dance in the
divertissement. Fuki Takahashi. Credit: Gene Schiavone.
Photo: A scene from the French “chick” dance. Jackie Nash & Jacob Bush. Credit: Gene Schiavone.
And last, but not least, there’s Pyotr IlyichTchaikovsky’s (cheye-KOFF-skees) iconic score, which you’ve probably already heard in movies and commercials during the holiday season. Surprisingly, Tchaikovsky didn’t like his
Nutcracker music as much as his other famous ballet scores ( Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty), but time has shown that he sold himself short. Audiences love the ballet’s memorable melodies, especially those representing diverse parts of the world.
Also, specifically watch and listen for…
the video projections throughout the ballet. How do they help tell the story? (Tip: Keep an eye out for scurrying mice. They’re easy to miss!)
the variety of dancing in the second act as the book’s pages flip. What makes each part special and exciting?
the many types of costumes worn by the characters in the second act. How do their colors and styles make you think of different countries?
how the costumes and sets work together. (Just one example: The constellation design on Drosselmeier’s cape, which reappears in the video projections of the second act.)
the sound produced by the celesta, a bell-like percussion instrument that was new to the composer at the time. Listen for it early in Act II. What to Think About…
Did you ever wonder why
The Nutcracker is performed every year? Is it because the themes of gift giving, family gatherings, and dancing snowflakes are a natural connection to the holiday season? Discuss why you think this ballet has appealed to dance companies and audiences for more than a century. There have been many versions of this ballet’s story and choreography. So, what’s your idea? How would you present The Nutcracker? Pick a time period and location for the story to take place. How would that change the movement and the costumes? Describe your version, and what your sets and costumes would look like. Take Action: Cracking the Nut
The story ends with Marie 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 Marie. Which one of you has the stronger argument? Make sure to include concrete examples from the ballet to back up your position. Document your debate to share with others: you might make a list of both sides’ arguments, make a visual art representation of each side’s examples, or take a video of your actual debate (which you might share on a social platform of your choice).
Teachers, Guardians, and Caregivers: We’ve Got You Covered
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 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 Willam Christensen. In fact, 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 family gatherings, gift giving, and dancing snowflakes were a natural connection to the holiday season.
The Nutcracker may have been born in Russia, it has certainly adapted to its North 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 the United States—a mix of many ethnicities and ideologies.
There are many versions of the ballet, including one by New York City Ballet founder and choreographer George Balanchine. That version was created in 1954 and televised shortly after. A film version using Balanchine’s choreography 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 and basing the production on the work of American cartoonist and illustrator Charles Burns. Morris’s version challenged traditional gender role expectations in both ballet and society by featuring men and women in tutus and pointe shoes.
Black choreographers have reshaped the popular ballet in a way that better reflects Black culture and experiences. 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, check out:
For more information about different versions of The Nutcracker, visit:
Here are some discussion points you may want to discuss after the show: Ask your young people to think about how this ballet differed from what they may have expected.
Ask young people to think about the different parts of the show. Can they comment on its choreography, costumes, a set/scenery piece, or a video projection that caught their attention?