Cute kids, antic elders, a dessert buffet that springs to life, all swirling to those gorgeous Tchaikovsky melodies. Is it any wonder that The Nutcracker is one of the most popular ballets in the country, if not the world?

Yet when you dig into the Russian roots of this holiday classic, there’s a dark history that may change the way you think about it.

The fruits of a violent imperial system lie behind the work’s bright, bouncy “Chinese” dance, with its pleated fans and parasols, and its slow, seductive “Arabian” scene, with ballerinas in gossamer harem pants. At The Nutcracker’s premiere on Dec. 18, 1892, in St. Petersburg, the ballet paid homage to the czar and his empire, and within its affectionate tale of family celebration and childhood fantasy are the footsteps of a more brutal narrative. If you look at some of the forces giving rise to it, and that still live within it, The Nutcracker isn’t all that sweet.

Cracking open 'The Nutcracker's' dark Russian past

Scene from the first production of The Nutcracker

Cracking open 'The Nutcracker's' dark Russian past

Marius Petipa, original choreographer of The Nutcracker, circa 1892

Cracking open 'The Nutcracker's' dark Russian past

The Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, site of the ballet’s premiere

Cracking open 'The Nutcracker's' dark Russian past

San Francisco Ballet’s current production of Nutcracker, choreographed by Helgi Tomasson

Popular in the Community