Feature: The Nutcracker           Back to Features page


Performed by thousands of ballet companies around the world every Christmas, The Nutcracker has become the most popular ballet of all time. This week, we looked into the enduring appeal of this balletic masterpiece.

Click here to listen to The Nutcracker Suite 


Tchaikovsky started writing The Nutcracker two years before his death in 1893. It was first performed in 1892. The plot is based on a story by Hoffman, although in Tchaikovsky’s hand the story lost a lot of its “grimness” to become the piece of seasonal confectionary that we know today. Although the plot is somewhat lacking in substance, the glorious music and spectacular costumes still make for an enjoyable evening and an excellent introduction from the world of ballet.

The fantastic story is centred on a child’s dream one Christmas Eve. The exact details of the plot vary according to the specific intentions of each choreographer, so we have tried to stick closely to the English National Ballet’s previous production, choreographed by Christopher Hampson and designed by legendary cartoonist Gerald Scarfe.

Act One begins with Clara and Fritz preparing for a Christmas party. Their uncle Drosselmeyer arrives with presents for the family, and entertains them with magic tricks. His present to Clara is a magical doll (the Nutcracker) and the children watch in amazement and delight as the life-sized doll dances in front of them.

begins with Clara and Fritz preparing for a Christmas party. Their uncle Drosselmeyer arrives with presents for the family, and entertains them with magic tricks. His present to Clara is a magical doll (the Nutcracker) and the children watch in amazement and delight as the life-sized doll dances in front of them.

Clara’s brother Fritz is jealous of the doll and tries to grab it, breaking it in the process. Their uncle mends it and as the guests depart, the children go off to bed.

Later that night, Clara awakes to find the doll missing and the room filled with giant mice. An army of soldiers arrive to help her rescue the Nutcracker, but a battle soon breaks out. The doll comes to life, and begins fighting a duel with the Mouse King. The mice are about to overwhelm the soldiers when Clara hits the Mouse King over the head with a discarded boot.

 Suddenly, she sees the Nutcracker lying on the floor. Distraught, she runs over and kisses him. Suddenly he is revived, turning into a handsome Prince – it is love at first sight. They dance together, and then Drosselmeyer takes them on a fantastic journey to celebrate their victory.

Act Two opens with the Prince and Clara flying through the clouds. The see Drosselmeyer and come earth to be greeted by the Sugar Plum Fairy. They tell the fairy about their adventure, and she presents Clara with a tiara, announcing that a celebration is in order.

Clara asks the Prince to dance with the fairy, and a whole host of bizarre characters entertain them with more dancing. Clara and Drosselmeyer lead the Waltz of the Flowers, and everybody joins together in a final celebratory dance before Clara and the Prince fly away together.

The story behind The Nutcracker is thin and fantastical, but like Raymond Briggs’ The Snowman, it captures the spirit and magic of Christmas, and this is what has bought it such enduring appeal.

Tchaikovsky’s music for The Nutcracker was arranged into a suite for concert performance almost as soon as the ballet was first performed. Of all the pieces that Tchaikovsky wrote, this demonstrates best his ability to extract a dark and smooth texture from the orchestra, which perhaps explains how this music has come to represent the flavours of Christmas.

(Dancers from the English National Ballet, photos courtesy of Dee Conway)