Synopsis of Tchaikovsky's 'Nutcracker' Ballet

Nutcracker ballet
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Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker," the story of a young girl's journey to a magical land on Christmas Eve, is perhaps not only the composer's most famous work but also one of the most famous ballets of all time. "The Nutcracker" is often performed during the Christmas season due to its content, and many families make it an annual tradition to attend a performance. If you've never seen this ballet, or you need a refresher on the story, we've provided a synopsis for you below.

Act I

Christmas Eve at the Stahlbaum's House

The Stahlbaums are preparing for their annual Christmas Eve party. The house is decorated with ornaments, wreaths, stockings, mistletoe, and, in the center of it all, a majestic Christmas tree. The Stahlbaum children, Fritz and Clara, wait anxiously for their family and friends to arrive.

As the guests begin to appear, the party gathers steam, with much dancing and celebratory laughter. Soon, a mysterious guest arrives. Dressed in dark clothing, he frightens Fritz, but not Clara, who knows that he is Godfather Drosselmeyer, the toymaker. His surprise arrival is warmly accepted, and all the children dance and carry on with laughter.

The Gift of the Nutcracker

The celebration is interrupted again when Drosselmeyer reveals to the children that he has brought them gifts. The girls receive beautiful china dolls and the boys receive bugles. Fritz is given a beautiful drum, but Clara is given the best gift of all, a nutcracker. Fritz grows jealous, snatches the nutcracker from Clara, and plays a game of toss with the other boys.

It isn't long until the nutcracker breaks. Clara is upset, but Drosselmeyer fixes it with a handkerchief. Drosselmeyer’s nephew presents Clara with a small makeshift bed that he puts under the Christmas tree for her injured toy.

The party grows late and the children become sleepy. Everyone generously thanks the Stahlbaums before they leave. As Clara’s family retires to bed, she checks on her nutcracker one last time and ends up falling asleep under the Christmas tree with him in her arms.

Attack of the Mouse King

At the stroke of midnight, Clara wakes up to a frightening scene. The house, the tree, and the toys seem to be getting larger. Is she shrinking? Out of nowhere, large mice dressed in army uniforms, led by their Mouse King, begin to circle the room while the toys and Christmas tree come to life. Clara’s nutcracker has also come to life. He groups the soldier toys into battle formation and fights the mouse army.

The Mouse King traps the Nutcracker in the corner, but the Nutcracker can’t overcome the Mouse King’s strength. Clara makes a desperate move to save her Nutcracker from defeat and throws her slipper at the Mouse King, hitting him directly on the head. The Nutcracker is able to overcome the stunned Mouse King and claims victory. The mice army quickly carries away their king.

Clara falls onto what had been the toy nutcracker’s bed, overwhelmed by the moment. As angels and delightful music hover over their heads, the bed turns into a magical sleigh, floating higher and higher. The Nutcracker is transformed into a human prince (who looks strikingly similar to Drosselmeyer’s nephew). He climbs aboard Clara’s sleigh and drives them through a snowy forest, where the snowflakes turn into dancing maidens.

Act II

A Magical Land

After their journey through the snow forest, Clara and her prince arrive at their destination in the Land of Sweets. Clara can’t believe her eyes: There are ladyfinger mountains topped with whipped cream whiter than snow, sweetly glazed flowers, and buttercream frosting everywhere she looks. Upon their arrival, the duo is greeted by the Sugar Plum Fairy. As they reenact the night’s events, the Sugar Plum Fairy expresses admiration for Clara’s bravery and the Nutcracker’s heroism. In their honor, the Sugar Plum Fairy takes them inside the Candy Castle and throws a lavish festival. They are treated like royalty and presented with every imaginable sweet.

Dancing Delights

Shortly thereafter, the dancing begins. Hot coco dances to the lively music of trumpets and castañets of the Spanish fandango. The women of coffee dance in veils and move their bodies like rising steam to an Arabian song while Mandarin tea dances to an exotic Asian flute chorus. Russian dolls follow the Mandarin tea, leaping and dancing to an invigorating dance known as a Trepak.

To Clara’s delight, there is still more to be seen. A giant gingerbread house, known as Mother Ginger, dances onto the Sugar Plum Fairy’s court. She opens her skirt and eight little gingerbread children come dancing out circling around her. After the dance is over, the children quickly file back into the large gingerbread house and Mother Ginger leaves the room. Soon after Mother Ginger exits, the dancing flowers enter to the tune of the harp. Clara thinks it is perhaps the most beautiful waltz she has ever heard, and she and the Nutcracker Prince watch with amazement. The flowers dance in beautiful mesmerizing patterns as a single Dewdrop floats above them.

Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy

Silence quickly follows the end of their dance. Clara doesn’t know what to expect next. A handsome Cavalier enters the scene and escorts the Sugar Plum Fairy to the center of the room. They dance to the most recognizable song in the entire work. The captivating pair dance lighter than air. This beautiful dance completes Clara’s most perfect evening.

Dream or Reality?

The festival concludes when everyone comes together on the court and bids Clara and the Nutcracker Prince farewell. She tells the Nutcracker she wishes the adventure would never end and he tells her it won’t for those who have an eye to see it. Clara wakes up the next morning under the Christmas tree with her toy nutcracker still in her arms. Was it all just a dream? Or was it the magic of Christmas, come to life?