What is the Nutcracker?

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  • Written By: Niki Foster
  • Edited By: Sara Z. Potter
  • Last Modified Date: 07 September 2019
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The Nutcracker is a ballet traditionally performed during Christmas. Unlike many other ballets, it is popular for children as well as adults. Based on a surreal short story by German writer E. T. A. Hoffmann, The Nutcracker tells the story of Clara, a young girl who dreams of having adventures with a nutcracker that she receives for Christmas. This nutcracker is particularly suited to such fantasies because it is made to look like a man, as is traditional in Europe.

Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky wrote the music for The Nutcracker in 1891-92. The ballet was first performed in St. Petersburg Russia around Christmas, on 18 December 1892. Despite its current popularity, the ballet did not immediately catch on. In fact, the ballet was not performed outside of Russia until a 1934 performance in England, and it would not reach the United States for an additional ten years. While the ballet was slow to gain popularity, portions of Tchaikovsky's music for the ballet, collectively known as The Nutcracker Suite, were commonly performed in concert.


The Nutcracker was given new life by famed choreographer George Ballanchine of the New York City Ballet in 1954. By the 1960s, the ballet was a Christmastime staple, and the New York City Ballet has performed Ballanchine's version every year since its debut. One of Ballanchine's innovations was to cast children in the roles of Clara, whom he renamed Marie, and the Nutcracker. Another version that helped cement the fame of this ballet was choreographed by Russian dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, who originally played the title role as well. Baryshnikov's version, debuting in 1976 and first televised a year later, was nominated for an Emmy and became the best-selling ballet video of all time.

Different versions of this ballet can be seen every year at Christmas, and quirkier takes on the story have began to spring up as well. There have been ice skating versions, such as 1983's The Nutcracker: a Fantasy on Ice, adapted for television. Mark Morris staged a satirical version of the ballet in 1992, called The Hard Nut. In addition, there have been many loosely based animated versions, such as 1999's The Nuttiest Nutcracker.


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