Louise Levene

The Nutcracker wasn’t always considered quite such a box of delights

How did this strange, lopsided ballet – critically panned at its première – become so ubiquitous?

Peter Wright’s sublime, button-backed production of The Nutcracker for the Royal Ballet. Credit: Roh/Tristram Kenton

E.T.A. Hoffmann’s tale of a young man turned into a novelty kitchen gadget by an evil rodent isn’t obvious dance material, and yet here we are, up to our plastic tiaras in sugar plums. Four Nutcrackers in London alone and an average of 200 productions, amateur and professional, across the Atlantic. How? Why?

Sharp pens greeted the 1892 St Petersburg première — ‘it’s a pity that so much fine music is expended on nonsense’ — and within two decades it was little more than a box of delights to be raided by directors and choreographers, blithely borrowing anything they fancied from Lev Ivanov’s choreography or Tchaikovsky’s ravishing, bittersweet score, regardless of context or key signatures. Anna Pavlova had pick-and-mix Tchaikovsky for the one-act Snowflakes ballet she took to New York in 1915. Diaghilev had Vaslav Nijinsky dance a solo to the Sugar Plum Fairy variation in 1911 and later used the same tinkling celeste sequence for the Lilac Fairy in his 1921 Sleeping Princess.

We are up to our plastic tiaras in sugar plums. There are four Nutcrackers this year in London alone

It wasn’t until 1934 that the two-act ballet had its first performance outside Russia when Ninette de Valois mounted it for what is now the Royal Ballet with the help of Nicholas Sergeyev, the former Imperial ballet regisseur who fled the Bolsheviks with the notations for all the great classics in his luggage. The 1934 Sadler’s Wells cast list for Casse-Noisette featured a 15-year-old ‘Margaret Fontes’ (guess who) as a snowflake together with Elsa Lanchester, Frankenstein’s bride-to-be, in the slinky ‘Danse Arabe’ (Sergeyev signed her up after seeing her acrobatic Ariel at the Old Vic). Top of the bill was Alicia Markova (née Alicia Marks) who would continue dancing her crystalline Sugar Plum Fairy for the rest of her long performing career.

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