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The Nutcracker: A Christmas Classic

The Nutcracker: A Christmas Classic

The Nutcracker is a two-act ballet that is loosely based on a short story called The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. The ballet itself was not a success when it premiered in December 1892 but critics and the general public enjoyed Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, a selection of 8 musical numbers chosen by the composer. The Nutcracker ballet became a seasonal mainstay in the 1960s, particularly in North America, and has continued to be a reliable ticket seller for ballet companies during the holiday season. According to the commentary in Disney’s Fantasia, Tchaikovsky detested the score. Funnily enough, this has arguably become one of his most famous compositions.

Fun Facts:

  • Tchaikovsky was asked to write the score with strict guidelines such as the desired tempo and the number of bars.

  • The National Ballet of Canada’s production of The Nutcracker includes celebrity cameos in the role of Cannon Doll. Past guests include former Toronto Raptors’ player Kyle Lowry, author Margaret Atwood, and former Maple Leafs player Mats Sundin.

  • The ballet runs roughly 1 hour 30 minutes to 1 hour 45 minutes long.

  • Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, Op. 71a is roughly 20 minutes long and is made up of the most recognizable numbers from the ballet. This is the music you hear in the seasonal commercials.

  • The 20-minute Nutcracker Suite is comprised of:

    • Miniature Overture

    • March

    • Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy

    • Arabian Dance

    • Chinese Dance

    • Russian Dance

    • Dance of the Reed-Flutes

    • Waltz of the Flowers

The Plot of The Nutcracker Ballet

Act I takes place on Christmas Eve, where a group of adults and children are gathered together to decorate a giant Christmas tree. The children dance to Tchaikovsky’s spirited March, giving the audience a tantalizing sample of what is to come.

We are introduced to Clara, a young girl who is fascinated with a wooden nutcracker carved in the shape of a soldier. When everyone has gone to sleep, Clara returns to check on the nutcracker. As the clock strikes midnight, the tin soldiers and gingerbread soldiers magically come to life and engage in battle against giant mice. Clara saves the nutcracker from the Mouse King by throwing her slipper at the Mouse King as a distraction, giving the nutcracker the opportunity to stab the Mouse King. The mouse army retreats.

With the battle over, the nutcracker transforms into a prince. The Prince leads Clara to a snow-covered pine forest where they are surrounded by dancing snowflakes and the audience is treated to the Waltz of the Snowflakes.

Clara and the Prince meet the Sugar Plum Fairy in the Land of Sweets. Cue the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy and the tinkling bell-like sounds of the celesta, an instrument that makes a distinctive dreamy sound and is often associated with a heavenly or magical atmosphere.

Clara’s heroics are celebrated with dancing “confections” and drinks from around the world. Chocolate from Spain, Arabian coffee, Chinese tea, Russian candy canes, and Danish marzipan shepherdesses are represented through imaginative sequences. The audience goes on a musical journey around the world, with distinctive choreography, costumes, and music inspired by foreign lands. It is important to point out that some critics have raised concerns that these dances promote negative stereotypes and caricatures. Modern choreographers have attempted to address those concerns in more recent productions.

Clara and the Prince watch more dances including the famous Waltz of the Flowers. The Sugar Plum Fairy kisses Clara and says her farewell to them. The ballet ends with Clara and the Prince in a reindeer-drawn sleigh, waving goodbye to the inhabitants of the Land of Sweets.

Not everyone can sit through a 1.5 hour long ballet, but listening to the 20-minute long Nutcracker Suite is doable on a cold winter’s night. As mentioned, these are Tchaikovsky’s best bits from the ballet score. It is hard to choose a favourite among the 8 selected numbers and you never know, you might end up wanting to hear more from the score such as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Cavalier or Waltz of the Snowflakes.


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