From pure evil to ballet masterclass: The origin story of festive favourite The Nutcracker

On this day 130 years ago, a week before , a Russian audience in St Petersburg first watched The Nutcracker. Now, when one thinks of the festive period, the fantastic costumes and the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy cannot help but spring to mind. But, on its premiere anniversary, takes a look at the ballet’s dark origin story, and the legacy that Russian critics would never have predicted.

The famous ballet we now know and love is based on a slightly ominous story written by the German fantasy and Gothic author, E. T. A. Hoffman, who was an influence on Edgar Allan Poe. 

In Germany, a nutcracker is culturally significant, as they are thought to both bring good luck and protect the home. Nutcrackers are, however, found in many cultures from all around the world — in fact, gave his wife Anne Boleyn one as a gift. 

Mr Hoffman wrote his 1816 book, The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, based on the child’s toy — yet it has some dark moments. The little seven-year-old protagonist, Marie, for example, falls into a glass cabinet and badly cuts her arm. 

And, a queen and boy are trapped within the body of a huge nutcracker, mice are evil, engaging in battles with dolls that magically come alive, and many of the characters are caught in a curse. 

In 1892, the book was adapted into a ballet by the choreographer Marius Pepita as had been tasked with writing a score for both an opera and a ballet. 

While the critics were enthusiastic about the Russian composer’s music, described as “astonishingly rich in detailed inspiration”, many slammed the dance. 

They were unhappy with the dancers and the plot, with one critic simply stating: “The Nutcracker cannot, in any event, be called a ballet. It does not satisfy even one of the demands made of a ballet.”

The Nutcracker was later dropped from the repertoire in 1905 after Russia was taken siege by the brief and unsuccessful revolution. 

READ MORE: The Nutcracker: The most popular ballet in the world

Balanchine’s version is the one most people would recognise today with other performances either using his staging exactly or closely imitating it. 

Now, the ballet – which is set on and often performed on Christmas Eve – is a staple of the festive season, particularly in the US. 

In fact, performances of the Nutcracker are highly lucrative for many ballet companies. According to dance critic Lauren Gallagher the San Francisco Ballet’s show “garners about 40 percent of the company’s ticket revenue each year”. 

Similarly, Daniel J Wakin, writing in the New York Times, said: “A holiday run of The Nutcracker is generally the financial foundation of an American dance company.”