Guide to 'The Nutcracker' Ballet

This holiday tradition has a rich history and tells a fun story

English National Ballet Perform 'The Nutcracker' At The London Coliseum
Corbis via Getty Images / Getty Images

"The Nutcracker" ballet has been a holiday tradition for more than 125 years. Numerous ballet companies around the world stage the famous ballet every December. Both children and adults enjoy the magical performance, for the catchy songs, the dreamy dancing, the elaborate costumes, the fantastical storyline, and the memories that surround the annual tradition. 

Many small local ballet communities also take part in the tradition by staging their own productions of "The Nutcracker." Aspiring ballerinas delight in the honor to dance on stage to the music of "The Nutcracker Suite." Many young dancers dream of one day performing in one of the leading roles.

History of "The Nutcracker" Ballet

First Production of The Nutcracker
The first production of The Nutcracker was performed in 1892 in the Mariinksy Theatre in St. Petersburg. Corbis via Getty Images / Getty Images

"The Nutcracker" ballet was written during the classical period of ballet, a time when many famous ballets were being written and performed. "The Nutcracker" is based on the book "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King," by E.T.A. Hoffmann, and an interpretation of Hoffman's story written by Alexandre Dumas.

Russian composer Peter Tchaikovsky wrote the music for the ballet during the early 1890s, near the end of his life. Hoffman's original story was modified quite a bit in order for it to be suitable for children. The first performance of "The Nutcracker" took place in Russia in 1892. The San Francisco Ballet performed the first American production of "The Nutcracker" in 1944.

Setting and Characters

The Nutcracker is broken into two completely separate theatrical units. Act 1 opens on Christmas Eve at the home of Hans Stahlbaum, the town mayor. The wealthy Stahlbaums are hosting a festive holiday party for family and friends, including Herr Drosselmeyer, the children's mysterious godfather, who gives Clara the nutcracker of the ballet's title. In the first act, the children are portrayed by child actors, and the dancing involves country style dances common to upper-middle-class families during the Imperial period in Russia.

Act 2, on the other hand, is Clara's dream inspired by Herr Drosselmeyer's gift; Clara and her Nutcracker are transformed into a handsome princess and prince, and it takes place in the Land of the Sweets, full of balletic performances and dance scenes set in a magnificent scene.

Pivotal Nutcracker Scenes

  • Party Scene. Arriving late to the party is Herr Drosselmeyer, bringing a toy train and soldiers for Fritz and for Clara, the beautiful toy nutcracker. Clara and Fritz are sent to bed, but Clara gets back up to search for her nutcracker, then falls asleep clutching it. She begins to dream.
  • Mouse Scene. Clara awakens to find the Christmas tree has grown to an enormous size and human-sized mice are scampering around the room. Fritz's toy soldiers have come to life and a battle is soon underway between the mice led by the giant Mouse King, and the soldiers led by Clara's nutcracker. When Clara sees that her nutcracker is about to be defeated, she throws her shoe at the Mouse King, stunning him long enough for the Nutcracker to stab him with his sword.
  • Snow Scene. After the Mouse King falls, the nutcracker lifts the crown from his head and places it on Clara. She magically transforms into a beautiful princess, and the nutcracker turns into a handsome prince before her eyes. The prince bows before Clara, taking her hand in his. He leads her to the Land of Snow. Act 1 ends as the two dance together, surrounded by a flurry of snowflakes.
Stage design for the ballet The Nutcracker by P. Tchaykovsky, 1892. Artist: Ivanov, Konstantin Matveevich (1859-1916)
Stage design for the ballet The Nutcracker by P. Tchaykovsky, 1892. Artist: Ivanov, Konstantin Matveevich (1859-1916). Heritage Images/Getty Images / Getty Images
  • Land of the Sweets. In Act 2, Clara and her prince arrive by boat at the Land of the Sweets, greeted by the Sugar Plum Fairy. The prince lives in this magical land, ruling from the Marzipan Castle. Clara and the prince are entertained by several dance performances including the Waltz of the Flowers. Clara and her nutcracker prince then dance together, in honor of their new friends.
  • Clara Awakens. On Christmas morning, Clara awakens under the Christmas tree, still holding her beloved nutcracker. She thinks about the mysterious events that happened during the night and wonders if it was all just a dream. She clutches her nutcracker doll and delights in the magic of Christmas.

Public Reaction

The November 1892 premiere of "The Nutcracker" at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg failed with both the public and critics. The dual nature of the plot, the limited ballet, and the reliance on spectacle were all focuses of criticism. Tchaikovsky didn't expect it to do well, although he knew the music was right: eight months before the ballet opened he premiered "The Nutcracker Suite," a 20-minute selection of eight movements of music and dance from the second act that received great acclaim.

Tchaikovsky After "The Nutcracker"

Since Tchaikovsky didn't expect much, and his wildly successful "Sleeping Beauty" had premiered in 1889 and done very well, apparently, he was not much affected by the negative reviews of "The Nutcracker." Between February and August of 1893, he was hard at work on what he considered his masterpiece, "Symphony No. 6 in B Minor (Pathétique)." It premiered in October 1893, but it didn't gain an enthusiastic response. Nine days after it premiered, Tchaikovsky died, of cholera or perhaps suicide; despite his 19th-century critics, both "Pathétique" and "The Nutcracker" are considered among Tchaikovsky's greatest works.