The most recent issue of Pointe magazine, which attends to matters balletic, lists what it considers to be the 71 major productions of The Nutcracker in the United States during the 2018 Christmas season. The work is represented by at least one production in every state, as well as in the District of Columbia and the territories of Puerto Rico, where it is given as El cascanueces, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Not on Pointe’s list is the one that took place last Friday at Andersen Air Force Base in Guam. In case you missed it and now feel regret, you can be assured of another chance next year, since the event’s Facebook page advised participants: “Please be sure after the performance to turn back in your props (roses, lollipops, signs, etc.) so we can use them again for next year’s show. Your costumes are yours to keep.”
This weekend, Aspen Santa Fe Ballet gives The Nutcracker its annual go-rounds at the Lensic Performing Arts Center, in four performances on the afternoons and evenings of Saturday, Dec. 15, and Sunday, Dec. 16. This much-revived production includes some incursions of flamenco and circus artistry, but it is based on the choreography ostensibly created by Russian Imperial Ballet Master Marius Petipa for the ballet’s world premiere, which took place in December 1892 at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg. In fact, Petipa fell seriously ill just as rehearsals got underway that August, and he delegated most of the details to his assistant Lev Ivanov. Contemporary reports characterized the choreography as unexceptional. Critics complained that the sets exhibited poor taste and that the dancing was not up to snuff. At least one reviewer, Alexandre Benois, wrote harshly of the musical execution and of the score by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, grousing that “Tchaikovsky has never written anything more banal than some of these numbers!” But most critics were kinder when it came to the music, which they preferred to other aspects of the production.
Some of the numbers were already familiar. Earlier that year, Tchaikovsky’s suite of eight movements from the ballet had been played for concert audiences in St. Petersburg (in March, with the composer conducting at a performance of the Russian Music Society) and Moscow (in July, with an obscure conductor named Voitsekh Glavach leading it at the First Electrical Exhibition). In October, the Nutcracker Suite got its first airing outside Russia, when Theodore Thomas, a pioneer of symphonic music in the United States, conducted it in Chicago. As a staged work, the ballet was slow to enter the repertoire. Moscow audiences didn’t see it until 1919, when it was mounted by the Bolshoi Theatre with new choreography. Its first non-Russian performance arrived in 1934, when it was given at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London.
The Nutcracker was not produced on an American stage until Oct. 17, 1940, when the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo introduced a one-act version at New York’s 51st Street Theater. The company stated that it used choreography by Alexandra Fedorova “after Petipa” — which, one assumes, really meant “after Ivanov.” The San Francisco Ballet gave The Nutcracker its first full-length American airing, with choreography by Willam Christensen, on Christmas Eve of 1944. George Balanchine’s celebrated version for the New York City Ballet followed a decade later.
The Nutcracker Suite also gained a strong following in the mid-20th century thanks to Walt Disney’s 1940 animated film Fantasia. A generation of concertgoers could scarcely listen to the suite without summoning up images of dancing mushrooms in the ballet’s “Chinese Dance,” floral-inspired Cossacks in the “Russian Dance,” sinuous fish in the “Arabian Dance,” lotus-like blooms in the “Dance of the Reed Flutes,” snowflakes in the “Waltz of Flowers,” or sprites and dandelions in the “Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy,” its phrases stretched out through exaggerated rubato imposed by conductor Leopold Stokowski.
Tchaikovsky capitalized on an extraordinary opportunity in the “Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy.” While procrastinating on his commission to compose The Nutcracker, he went on an extended concert tour of Europe and the United States. It included his appearing as the star attraction at the New York concerts that launched what was then called just the Music Hall but later became known as Carnegie Hall, after its founding patron. During those travels he spent time in Paris, where he was entranced by a new instrument he encountered in the shop of its inventor, Victor Mustel. It was the celesta, a percussion instrument whose metal bars are struck by hammers activated by a keyboard. “I have discovered a new instrument in Paris,” he wrote excitedly to his publisher, “something between a piano and a glockenspiel, with a divinely beautiful tone. I want to introduce this into the ballet. ... The instrument is called the ‘Celesta Mustel,’ and costs 1,200 francs. You can only buy it from the inventor, Mustel, in Paris. … Have it sent direct to Petersburg; but no one there must know about it. I am afraid Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov might hear of it and make use of the new effect before I could. I expect the instrument will make a tremendous sensation.” The publisher kept the secret, Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov did not get a leg up, and Tchaikovsky was able to introduce the celesta’s sparkling timbre to Russian ears in his symphonic ballad Voyevoda in November 1891, and then in the “Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy” when the Nutcracker Suite was unveiled a few months later. ◀
▼ Aspen Santa Fe Ballet presents The Nutcracker
▼ Lensic Performing Arts Center, 211 W. San Francisco St.
▼ 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 15; 1 and 5 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 16
▼ Tickets ($36-$94) through ticketssantafe.org; 505-988-1234