Cracking Open The Nutcracker

Explore the most popular ballet of all time


Let’s pretend you’re on a game show, and it is down to the final question. You can win $1,000,000 if you can hum a few bars from the music for The Nutcracker. The pressure is on. Everyone is waiting, and you’ve used up all of your lifelines. There is no chance to phone a friend. Can you do it?

Probably. The Nutcracker is arguably the most popular ballet of all time, and Tchaikovsky’s musical score has become familiar to people all over the world. Even if you lost out on the $1,000,000, you may know that The Nutcracker is often performed during the holiday season, and has inspired countless variations, especially in the USA. Ever wonder why?

First, Some History

To find out, let’s go back to the beginning. 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.

Read on and learn more about different American productions of this famous ballet.


In 1954, George Balanchine, co-founder and ballet master of the New York City Ballet, created his now-famous version, and can be credited with helping popularize the ballet across the country.

Balanchine’s Nutcracker follows the original plot closely. He chose to have the roles of the young girl Clara (or Marie, as she is sometimes called) and the Nutcracker prince played by actual children, and adjusted their choreography accordingly. Because they are not adults, there is no hint of a romance between them as seen in other versions.

Balanchine’s work reached a wider audience than had been possible before because it was televised both in 1957, and again in 1958. The complete ballet was made into a full-length feature film in 1993, starring Macaulay Culkin as the Nutcracker, the Nutcracker Prince, and the nephew of Drosselmeyer, the dollmaker. The New York City Ballet performs Balanchine’s Nutcracker every holiday season.

After Balanchine, many choreographers were inspired to try their hand and create their own versions of the ballet. Some realized that productions of The Nutcracker would bring their best crowds, and help fund their activities for the rest of the year.

Morris and Byrd

Until the early 1990s, most versions followed the original story and setting. Other versions, like those choreographed by Mark Morris and Donald Byrd, were changed to make the ballet touch on personal and contemporary concerns.

In 1991, choreographer Mark Morris created The Hard Nut to reflect social issues and interests that were relevant to him and to modern audiences. Morris was inspired by the graphic artist Charles Burns, whose work includes comic books with dark themes and stark black and white imagery. Morris removed the story from turn-of-the-century Germany to retro 1960s suburbia with black and white sets and outlandish period costumes.

Morris was also interested in challenging the traditional male and female roles established in the ballet. Marie’s brother, Fritz, is played by a woman who has a crew cut and boyish clothes, and is very physically active. Marie’s mother is played by a man, as is the housekeeper. In the famous Snowflake Waltz, which is traditionally danced by women, Morris has a group of men and women perform, all dressed in tutus and tank tops. Male and female dancers wear pointe shoes, the special ballet shoes for female dancers that allow them to go up on their toes. Throughout The Hard Nut, Morris asks us to think about gender stereotypes in ballet as well as in society.

African American choreographers have altered The Nutcracker in a variety of ways to shift the ballet from an overwhelmingly white tradition to one that better reflects their own experience. Donald Byrd’s 1995 Harlem Nutcracker tells the story of a black family during the holidays with a grandmotherly Clara as the matriarch. Clara, recently widowed, celebrates with her family until she suffers a heart attack while holding her Nutcracker doll.

The action that follows serves as a flashback on the full life she led with her “prince.” Act II takes place in “Club Sweets,” a swinging Harlem nightclub she visited in her youth, and includes references to African American struggles. The Harlem Nutcracker combines Tchaikovsky’s score with jazz music and gospel, and ballet choreography is joined by jazz, hip-hop, and salsa dancing.

Joffrey Ballet

Robert Joffrey’s The Nutcracker premiered in 1987. It was produced in the spirit of the original ballet by Marius Petipa, but Joffrey wanted his version to have an American feel. Most productions of The Nutcracker were presented using European themes and traditions. In contrast, Joffrey’s version is set in 1850s America. Joffrey worked on his production of The Nutcracker for 15 years, all the while collecting Victorian cards, prints, illustrations, and toys that would form the basis for his sets and costumes.

Traditionally, Romantic ballets had taken their audiences to various settings and time periods by creating an elaborate visual spectacle. One way Joffrey added to The Nutcracker’s spectacle was by incorporating Christmas tree angels into the production. Joffrey’s research of Victorian tin toys also inspired the sleek glow in the dark mice costumes. Another change Joffrey made was to “bring alive” a bouquet of flowers from the first act during the “Waltz of the Flowers” in the second act.

Another significant difference is Joffrey’s Drosselmeyer. Some productions have portrayed Drosselmeyer as a frightening old man who leads Clara into a threatening dream world. However, Joffrey chose to represent him as an intelligent, charming character that makes Clara’s fantasy come true. Most importantly, Joffrey’s Nutcracker highlights innocence, wonder, and family ties.


In 2009, dancer and choreographer Alexei Ratmansky (ah-LEX-ee rat-MAN-skee) became Artist in Residence for the American Ballet Theatre (ABT). The Nutcracker is the first full-length ballet he choreographed for the company. Born in St. Petersburg, Russia, Ratmansky began his training at the age of 10 at the famed Bolshoi Ballet where he later became the company’s artistic director.

As a master storyteller/choreographer, Ratmansky's Nutcracker differs from other productions in numerous ways. While in some productions, the children’s roles (like Clara, Fritz, and the Nutcracker) are danced by adults who pretend to be young, Ratmansky has children perform these roles. Ratmansky further twists this formula by introducing adult “doubles” for the young Clara and Nutcracker. Often the young dancers “watch” their adult versions as if they are looking into their own future as a grown-up Prince and Princess.

Ratmansky’s vision also adds two new elements to the ballet: “danger” by making the dancing snowflakes beautiful, but also deadly, and “humor” in a little white mouse that sneaks around and escapes capture. And in the “Waltz of the Flowers,” the ladies represent blossoms and the men are bees.

In addition, The Nutcracker’s final romantic duet, or pas de deux (pronounced PAH-d’-DUEH), is usually danced between the Sugar Plum Fairy and her male partner (Cavalier). Ratmansky, however, partners the adult versions of Clara and the Nutcracker so that the finale of the ballet can be an expression of love, hope, and happiness.

Undoubtedly you’ll find a Nutcracker near you, whether it be a local dance school or professional production. Whatever version you see, enjoy your holiday Nutcracker!



Kirsten Bodensteiner

Editors & Producers

Lisa Resnick
Content Editor


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