The Nutcracker: Holiday Favorite Leaps Onto Many Stages
Nutcrackers are here, there and everywhere at the holidays — from the dollar store’s seasonal decor aisle to the local theater staging the famous ballet to Steubenville’s Nutcracker Village and its more than 150 6-foot wooden statues.
But if you’re like me, you’ve probably wondered how this wooden snack-food aid in a soldier’s uniform bearing a forced, toothy grin came to be associated with Christmas.
Figuring into the connection are both the collectible tool and the ballet with its iconic music.
Handcarved wooden nutcrackers in the form of soldiers and kings began popping up in the Sonneberg and Erzgebirge regions of Germany between the 15th and 19th centuries (the timeframe varies depending on the source). According to the most famous maker of today’s collectible figures, the Steinbach Co. in Germany, nutcrackers commonly were given as gifts (including at Christmas) and were regarded as good-luck charms and household protectors, as Antique of the Week columnist Maureen Zambito shared in last Sunday’s installment.
A German folk tale tells of a puppetmaker who won a nutcracking challenge posed by a wealthy villager and was rewarded with his own shop. Other folk tales originated in Bohemia (Czech), Poland and Muscovy (Russia), according to a 2015 feature by translator Sarah Ardizzone on the Guardian.com.
Out of these tales, German author E.T.A. Hoffman carved his novella, “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.”
Hoffman “was a champion of the imagination run wild,” according to a 2012 National Public Radio spot, “No Sugar Plums Here: The Dark Romantic Roots of the Nutcracker.” His 1816 nutcracker tale featured a girl named Marie who was given a nutcracker doll for Christmas. As described in a 2014 slate.com article, in a tortured dream state, Marie witnesses a fight between the ugly soldier and a seven-headed mouse king. When she defies her family who ridicules her and vows to marry the nutcracker, he comes to life and whisks her off to the doll kingdom to live.
So we’ve gone from good-luck carvings to European folk tales to Hoffman’s somewhat sinister story. Next comes the French translation of Hoffman’s tale by the wife of Alexander Dumas, who in turn adapted it into a children’s story in 1844. It was this version on which Franco-Russian dancer and choreographer Marius Petipa based the ballet, commissioned by the Russian Imperial Theatre in the early 1890s.
Composer Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky was tapped to compose the music for the ballet, which debuted in St. Petersburg a few days before Christmas in 1892. The ballet featured the now-famous fight between the soldiers led by the Nutcracker against the Mouse King and his minions, as well as the beautiful dances from around the world and the tour through mystical lands of snowflakes and flowers.
It was the music, however, that captivated people, Ardizzone said. Before the ballet ever hit the stage, Tchaikovsky culled eight pieces from the work and performed it as “The Nutcracker Suite.”
To this day, whether or not they’ve ever seen the ballet, people the world over associate the suite’s strains with Christmastime. Can’t you hear the heraldic horns of the opening March, the sweet celesta of the Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy and the dizzying pace and enormous sound of the minute-long Russian Dance?
At first, the ballet was not well received. It wasn’t until 1934 that it was first performed in London. Christmas Eve 1944 saw its U.S. debut in San Francisco, where it was has been staged every year since. According to concert violist Miles Hoffman in a 2014 NPR interview, it finally caught on throughout the U.S in the 1960s as an annual Christmas tradition.
From the local productions featuring the tiniest of ballerinas, to the large, lavish performances by professional Russian ballet companies, thousands of performances of the ballet now take place around the world every Christmas season.
Here in the tri-state area, people have ample opportunity to carry on the tradition.
A new offering in the past few years is the Nutcracker Village and Advent Market at Historic Fort Steuben in Steubenville. Started by two business owners who wanted to spruce up downtown at the holidays, the village has grown to include more than 150 handpainted life-size nutcrackers in varying themes, representing everything from local celebrities and sports mascots to political figures and fictional characters.
Judy Bratten, executive director of Historic Fort Steuben, said the event draws more attention each year. The fort’s visitor center, which is only open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., saw 3,000 people come through the doors last weekend alone, she said. The nutcrackers are on display outdoors 24 hours a day, so it’s hard to say how many people have come to see them, she added. Weekends include live music and an outdoor marketplace of crafts, food and Christmas items.
“We even had a couple, believe it or not, from Florida come,” Bratten said.
After the first display in 2015, Bratten said she felt a performance of some sort should be part of the festivities, and she approached Dr. John Holmes and his wife, Von, at Franciscan University of Steubenville. They teamed up and wrote the book and lyrics to an original musical, “Wooden Heart Follies,” starring six nutcrackers and set to Tchaikovsky’s music. The storyline involves a nutcracker who falls in love with their creator but can’t get her to notice him.
The show is staged at the Steubenville Masonic Temple, 227 N. Fourth St., at 2 p.m. today, Dec. 10 and Dec. 17.
Bratten said she feels the Steubenville event has provided a boost to the ballet’s popularity locally, as well.
“I’m glad it’s revived interest in the ballet, too, because it’s a delightful holiday treat for the whole family.”
Asked what’s so appealing about the timeless ballet, she cited the magical aspect of the story, the international dances and the beautiful costumes.
“I think it’s a wonderful introduction also for young people to classical music,” she said.
Local performances of “The Nutcracker” include:
— Mid Ohio Valley Ballet’s “The Nutcracker” — 7 p.m. Monday at Lincoln Theater, New Martinsville
Local students from The Academy for Dance & Theatre Arts will join the Mid Ohio Valley Ballet on stage.
— Moscow Ballet “Great Russian Nutcracker” — 7 p.m. Wednesday, at the Capitol Theatre, Wheeling
This version of the ballet is in its 25th anniversary North American tour and features a Moscow setting, lavish costumes and professional Russian dancers as well as about 70 local children who hail from dance schools up and down the valley. The production includes a 50-foot growing Christmas tree, a troika sleigh, and a unique addition of the Dove of Peace, a male and female dancer each of whom wears a wing that results in a 25-foot span when they come together.
Over the years, 75,000 student dancers have performed alongside the professionals. The children’s roles are as Party Children, Small Mice, Snowflakes, Snow Sprites, Snow Maidens and Act II’s variations of the world’s five great heritages.
Cheryl Pompeo, Oglebay Institute School of Dance director, said it’s “the experience of a lifetime,” for the students. She said one of the most valuable lessons they learn is that dance is an international language. No matter what language the dancers speak, “a plie is a plie,” she said.
She added that while OI’s School of Dance served as the host school for the GRN auditions, it’s great to see all the dance schools come together.
“For two to three hours there’s children clear from Hancock County down to to Clarksburg and they’re all speaking the language of dance. And they’re speaking it without issues, and there is no trouble, and they’re all the same,” Pompeo said.
— Oglebay Institute School of Dance’s “The Nutcracker” — 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. today, Dec. 10 and Dec. 17 at the Mansion Museum, located in Oglebay Park. Also, 7 p.m. Dec. 22 and 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. Dec. 23 at Towngate Theatre, 2118 Market St. in Wheeling
— Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s “The Nutcracker” — Through Dec. 27 at the Benedum Center, Pittsburgh
This holiday spectacular features more than 100 dancers and 150 costumes. PBT adds its own spin on the time and place with a turn-of-the-century setting incorporating Pittsburgh’s own landmarks, historical figures and cultural heritage.
— Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s sensory-friendly performance of “The Nutcracker” –2 p.m. Dec. 26, at the Benedum Center, Pittsburgh
The performance features extra support and adaptations for people with sensory sensitivities, autism spectrum disorders and other special needs.
Accommodations include: specially trained staff, dancers, ushers and volunteers; quiet break areas and activity stations in the lobby; relaxed theater rules, including dimly lit lights and the freedom to come and go from seats as needed; availability of fidget items and earplugs; permission to use iPads and other electronics for therapeutic uses; adjustments or elimination of potentially startling light, sound and special effects; and pre-performance guides that acclimate patrons to the storyline, theater and production.
— Bolshoi Ballet’s “The Nutcracker” Cinema Series — at Cinemark Robinson, Robinson Township, Pa., 12:55 p.m. Dec. 17
Danced by the world-class Bolshoi Ballet, this one-day-only screening of the holiday classic is captured live from Moscow’s legendary Bolshoi Theatre.
So get cracking! Discover the magic of “The Nutcracker” this Christmas season.