OF FRAGILE AND SUGARY NUTCRACKER"
The Nutcracker was premiered
on December 18, 1892 at the Maryinsky Theater in St. Petersburg.
According to the Russian/Julian calendar, this date was December
6, because the Julian calendar lagged the western European by
twelve days at this point in history. December 6 is St. Nicholas
Day, a day of significance in Russia because St. Nicholas is
one of the patron saints of the nation, and also because it marks
the beginning of the Christmas season there, which ends on Orthodox
Christmas, January 6.
With the delights that many productions
of this classic work produce today, it is difficult for us to
imagine that the first production was not a success. Many of
the critics of the day, and the letters to the theater journals
find the work weak, not suited to treatment by an august institution
like the Maryinsky, and even not ballet! The 1892 audience had
difficulty in reconciling the Act I narrative with the Act II
divertissement, as many do today. Many thought that the music
overpowered the slender subject. Some felt that the serious opera
and the "ballet-féerie" were a bad mismatch.
Some balletomanes were disappointed that the ballerina danced
only in the divertissement.
Discrepancies in the libretto,
and the scenario for the composer, and the choreographic notation
and the audience's accounts of what they saw lead historians
to believe that there may have been a lot of scene-doctoring
during the life of the first production for so many different
things to have been said to have been going on. In general, though,
the production followed the libretto, and there are some particulars
to be fleshed out and questions answered from other articles
under this heading, so an overview of the show will not be a
total redundancy. Act I.
From curtain's rise, there was
an emphasis on narrative. Detailed conversations were in progress:
Silberhaus(to a servant): Is the Christmas tree ready yet?
Servant: No, not yet, but I will tell you when it is.
Silberhaus(to his wife): Imagine that, the tree isn't ready!
And on the entrance of the guests:
Silberhaus(spotting a difficult guest, to his wife): You invited
Mrs. S.: No, but she came anyway; what can you do about it, so
But with the beginning of the march,
a curious style of integration of mime and dance starts to happen,
which is a hallmark of the ballet. Pantomimed conversations proceed
almost seamlessly into academic steps and back again. Dancing
and storytelling are woven together in a very sophisticated way,
advancing the narrative using classical vocabulary in ways that
were not employed again for many years, although Ivanov's way
is not so interior as, say, Tudor's.
One point of departure from the
scenario follows the march. It was here that Petipa had originally
wanted a suite of national dances, Chinese, Spanish, Italian
(recycled as the male variation in the grand pas de deux), a
Trepak, a Jig, and as a finale-a cancan! As it ended up, it merely
went into a galop for the children with the entrance of additional
guests, this time dressed in costumes. A marginal note in the
scenario may mean that Petipa suggested to Tchaikovsky that he
incorporate an 18th-century French song "Bon Voyage, cher
Dumolet" into this part of the score. He did this prompting
again in Act II.
There is a lot of by-play, including
some business with a snuffbox and the President and Drosselmeyer
sharing a pinch just after his entrance, but the matter of the
strange boxes for the mechanical dolls is unclear, as is the
dancing that followed. Interestingly, the first dance in the
little divertissement is for the soldier and the vivandière,
and the second, minor mode, is for Columbine and Harlequin, obviously
more in a Petrouchka vein than is presently seen. Petipa
had wanted a pair of devils here, emerging from a giant snuffbox,
but cooler heads censored the tobacco advertisement!
The action proceeds as in the libretto
until after the Nutcracker has broken, and then it becomes difficult
to tell what was going on while Clara is trying to shush the
boys while her beloved toy recovers, but one thing does seem
clear--she dances a lullaby. Stanislava Belinskaya was the original
Clara, and a student in the Maryinsky School, which brings a
second hallmark of the original production: Student dancers in
appropriate parts, dancing a simple vocabulary with incompletely-finished
After the Grossvater dance and
the exit of all the guests and family, the choreographic notation
of Act I ends until the Waltz of the Snowflakes, but the blocking
of the battle does show up-in the score! The concertmaster or
perhaps Riccardo Drigo, the conductor himself, notated in the
rehearsal score where the various elements of toy soldiery enter
By the time we get to the "snow
scene," we are faced with two different notations of the
choreography, possibly different, but possibly just reflecting
the subjective nature of Stepanov notation, and the personal
differences of different notators. One thing seems plain, though,
from both versions-these are Russian snowflakes! They waltz in
groups of three, much the same way that composer Igor Stravinsky
and two of his Russian friends used to do when they got drunk
together in Paris in the '20s!
The action in Act II has to get
over expeditiously, so that the divertissement may proceed, but-a
transition must be made, so that there is a reason to present
the entertainment at all. The opening of the scene was probably
a procession, an entrée, in the 18th century féerie
At the bell-like sound of the celesta,
the Sugar Plum Fairy and her cavalier, Prince Coqueluche enter
and perform a short bit of double work, supported by a few coryphees,
and true to the narrative style of Act I, she begins mimed instructions
to her court to prepare for the arrival of the ruling Prince.
(A narrative note here-the Sugar Plum Fairy may be an idealized
parent, but she stands in, in this production, for Princess Pirlipata
in the Hoffman/Dumas story, who had thrown the poor Nutcracker
[named Nathaniel Drosselmeyer] out of her kingdom when he became
hideously ugly after having rescued her from a curse. Now that
the curse is totally broken, he is welcome back to take his rightful
place as the ruler of the Kingdom of Sweets.)
There is no substantive notation
until the beginning of the Spanish dance, which Ivanov said he
couldn't understand musically. A rather odd observation, as the
dance is nothing but a Jota and its form is very simple. This
dance was for a lead couple and at least two others.
The Arabian dance was likewise
shorthanded in notation, and may have been simply for a soloist
alone for most of it, who then is joined by a cavalier at the
last moment. Other dancers are indicated, but they are simple
spots on the stage and the instructions "bow", "kneel",
and so forth appear in their places from time to time-they may
have been students.
There are at least two ways that
the notation presents the Chinese dance, and later versions including
Porcelain Princesses and a Mandarin (interpolated into Diaghilev's
production of Sleeping Beauty) and a surviving example
said to resemble a "pantomime version of Aladdin" and
featuring a phoo dog-nobody seems absolutely sure what showed
up on the first night, but it must not have stayed that way!
The Dance of the Mirliton-Flutes
is curiouser and curiouser. People today think they are panpipes,
but Petipa's instructions direct that they carry "little
flutes made of reed, stopped at either end with gold-beater's
skin." This description sounds like some sort of fancy stop-flute,
and indeed it is. The dictionary definition for "mirliton"
is "kazoo". That would explain the oddly buzzing bass
line in the second theme of this dance. Choreographically, the
dance contained a lot of little piqué point work and close-to-the-ground
matter with the occasional pirouettes en demi-pointe thrown in.
Not only is gentle deference made in the direction of Denmark
(Bournonville ballets were known for "single pirouette on
point, doubles on half"), thereby identifying the sweet
shepherdesses as marzipan, the favorite confection of Denmark,
but there is now a place for even the noisemakers at the party.
The Russian dance-the Trepak that
shopping malls like to play over and over again at Christmas
season to keep the crowd in a hurry-up mood - was danced by a
character artist of the Maryinsky named Alexander Shirayev, and
was supported by student dancers. All were dressed as jesters-a
surviving photograph shows that at least Shirayev carried a hoop,
which another dancer says he jumped through "adroitly."
Mother Ginger and her Polichinelles
were a recycled item from an earlier ballet by Petipa entitled
The Wilful Wife. Petipa left a note to Tchaikovsky that she was
to enter to the French tune "Girofle'-Girofla" and
the oompah tune the children dance was to be "Cadet Rouselle".
The endearing old lady was played by a jolly old Mr. Yakovlev,
The Waltz of the Flowers has been
supposed to have been choreographically similar to the Act I
valse villageoise in Sleeping Beauty, which depended heavily
on props. Sure enough, the "cake flowers" were carrying
garlands of angelica, an herb used to decorate cakes.
The pas de deux and its succeeding
variations provides us with some insight into what the original
ballerina and her partner must have been like, but we cannot
be sure, as the surviving notated parts of the opening period
of the dance seem not to relate to the second period, and they
are in different hands - second cast, second choreography? And
the survival examples "after Ivanov" form an uneasy
truce with both written records. The really remarkable thing
in the original pas de deux came toward the end, when the ballerina
went to an upstage corner where she stood on point on the end
of a long chiffon scarf her cavalier had laid down for her and
then, standing perfectly still, she was pulled across the stage
on the scarf, as she is lighter than a feather! (Actually, they
had a little wagon called a reika on a track and Gerdt pulled
on the scarf while stagehands, usually soldiers, moved Dell'Era
across the stage on the wagon from underneath the stage.) There
is a surviving photograph of this moment showing the second-cast
Sugar Plum Fairy, Varvara Nikitina, and Gerdt.
The Grand Coda, one of the most
rumbustious waltzes Tchaikovsky ever wrote, reintroduces all
the corps and soloists of the divertissement in their turns,
then the principals, entering on the telltale celesta cue. The
entire company, including Clara and the Prince, dance together
until the Apotheosis (a hive of bees) begins.