Ballet West

The Nutcracker

Adam Sklute, Artistic Director

Willam Christensen, Choreographer

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Composer

So, What’s Going On?

Hands down one of the most popular ballets of all time, The Nutcracker is all about the magic and mystery of the holiday season. This is the time of year when children dare to dream big about what wonderful gift may come their way. But Clara, the main character in this story, does more than hope for a big box under her tree. She imagines an incredible world filled with toys that grow larger than life, where there are battles between a Mouse King and a Nutcracker, and where she soars off to delightful adventures in enchanted lands with amazing inhabitants.

FYI: The very first Nutcracker was choreographed by Marius Petipa (pronounced PET-ee-pah) and performed in Russian in 1892. A complete version of the work was not performed in the United States until 1944 when The Nutcracker was produced by the San Francisco Ballet with choreography by Willam Christensen. (Christensen later became Ballet West’s Founding Artistic Director.) And get this: The company has the longest unbroken performance history of The Nutcracker in the world!

Plus…here’s the good news for you. You get to go along for the ride as what you will see is a new, $3 million production with brand new sets, costumes, props, and special effects. But more on that later. For now, let’s crack this shell open.

The Story in a Nutshell

Act I

It is Christmas Eve and Mr. and Mrs. Stahlbaum and their children Clara and Fritz are getting ready for a holiday party. Guests arrive, including Clara’s Godfather, Herr Drosselmeyer (pronounced DROS-sel-MY-er). He has a special gift for Clara—a nutcracker doll made to look like a soldier. Clara adores her new toy.

[Caption] The holiday party is a joyous celebration of family, friends, merriment, and toys for all the children. [Credit] Artists of Ballet West. Photo by Luke Isley.

Later that evening, Clara returns to the living room for one more look at her nutcracker, holding it close before falling asleep. Strange things happen: Huge mice dance in front of the Christmas tree that grows to an enormous size and her nutcracker comes alive.

A battle begins between the evil Mouse King and the Nutcracker. Clara, wishing to aid the Nutcracker, removes her shoe and throws it at the Mouse King. While he is distracted, the Nutcracker fatally stabs him with his sword.

Now magically-transformed into a prince, the Nutcracker thanks Clara and invites her to accompany him to the Kingdom of the Sugar Plum Fairy. On their way, they pass through the exquisite land of the Snow Queen and her Prince.

Act II

In the land of the Sugar Plum Fairy, Clara and the Nutcracker are entertained. Chinese, Spanish, and Arabian dancers perform, as does Mother Buffoon, who hides her many children under her skirt.

The performances end with the grand pas de deux (PAH-d’-DUEH), or duet, between the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier. Afterward, Clara flies away in a sled with her Nutcracker.

Then, suddenly, Clara wakes up from slumber to find herself under the Christmas tree with the wooden nutcracker in her arms. Was it all just a dream? Or the magic of Christmas?

Who’s Who

Clara Stahlbaum, a young girl with an active imagination

Fritz Stahlbaum, Clara’s brother

Herr Drosselmeier, a toymaker and magician

The Nutcracker (Prince), a doll who becomes a prince

The Mouse King, the leader of the mice

Snow Queen and King, rulers of the Land of Snowflakes

Sugarplum Fairy and Cavalier, leaders of the Land of the Sweets

Other Characters: Mother Buffoon and her children, Mouse King and his army of mice, dancing flowers, snowflakes, and dancers from faraway lands such as Spain, Arabia, China, and Russia.

What to Look and Listen for…

Putting together a brand new productionnew sets, scenery, and costumes, but keeping the same, classic choreography intactrequires that many parts come together as one. To accomplish this task, many people had to work tirelessly to put it all together for this theatrical experience. Read on to learn more about each piece of this Nutcracker puzzle and what to look and listen for during the performance including:

  • Twenty-four drops (a painted piece of cloth that is hung behind the stage in a theater as part of the scenery) that create Clara’s dreamy world. Here is “snowy, forest drop” for The Nutcracker by Utah Opera Studios.
  • More than 180 costumes were made for this production by stitchers, milliners (hat- makers), drapers, mask makers, and pattern makers.
  • Some tutus were handsewn with 16 yards of tulle and then adorned with 806 Swarovski crystals. Worth $8,000 each, each tutu required more than 40 hours of work.
  • More than 200 props were recreated, including the nutcracker doll itself. Using cutting-edge technology, a doll was molded in clay then laser-scanned. Using computer models, the doll was engineered into several pieces so that the mouth could move. In addition, a magnet was installed so the head could be removed (true to the original choreography). Then, the design became a reality by using 3D printing. Finally, a scenic painter spent two weeks painting the three dolls for the production.
  • Keep a lookout for a grandfather clock. It is the only prop that remains from the original production.
  • Masks! Lots of them! Watch for all shapes and sizes for the monkeys, the bear, ten mice, the Mouse King, the Mouse Prince, and two baby mice.
  • The snow is a signature but tricky element of The Nutcracker. The falling snow has to give the effect of a winter wonderland but can’t impede the dancers’ choreography on stage by making them slip or by obscuring their vision.
  • And then there’s the magic of flight—literally. Check out a new sleigh and flight path that takes Clara and her Prince into the stars.
  • FINALLY…what to listen for? Tchaikovsky’s iconic score for this ballet, of course!

Take Action: Cracking the Nut

The story ends with Clara waking up and holding her Nutcracker doll. She wonders: Was this all a dream? What do you think? Have a discussion with a friend with one of you arguing that it was all a dream, and the other arguing that the events you saw onstage really happened to Clara. Which one of you has the stronger argument? Make sure to include concrete examples from the ballet to back up your position. Take a video of your debate and post it to Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr, Snapchat, or any platform of your choice. Use #crackingthenut as your hashtag.

Okay, you’re ready for The Nutcracker.

Parents and Teachers: We’ve Got You Covered

The first performance of The Nutcracker took place in Russia in 1892. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (pronounced chy-KOFF-skee) adapted the ballet from a story called “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” by German author E.T.A. Hoffmann. Marius Petipa (PEH-tee-PAH) and his assistant Lev Ivanov created the choreography. Surprisingly, the first performance of the ballet was not deemed a success, and 25 years passed before anyone outside of Russia performed it.

A complete version of the work was not performed in the United States until 1944 when The Nutcracker was produced by the San Francisco Ballet with choreography by Willam Christensen. (Christensen later became Ballet West’s Founding Artistic Director.) In fact, it was the San Francisco Ballet that began the tradition of presenting the work on an annual basis, and does so to this day. The themes of gift giving, family gatherings, and dancing snowflakes were a natural connection to the holiday season.

While The Nutcracker may have been born in Russia, it has certainly adapted to its American home. Not only has it become an annual holiday tradition, but the ballet, in all of its variations, has come to reflect the character of our country—a mix of many ethnicities and ideologies.

There are many versions of the ballet, including one by New York City Ballet founder and choreographer George Balanchine. This version was created in 1954 and televised shortly after. A film version was made in 1993. This ballet is performed by the New York City Ballet every season and is perhaps the most recognized.

Other choreographers have altered the original ballet to reflect changing cultural concerns or interests. Mark Morris created The Hard Nut in 1991, setting the ballet in 1960s suburbia. His version challenged traditional male and female roles, and features both men and women in tutus and pointe shoes.

African American choreographers have reshaped the popular ballet in a way that better reflects their ethnic experience. Donald Byrd’s 1995 version called the Harlem Nutcracker combines jazz music and gospel with Tchaikovsky’s score, and adds Hip Hop, salsa, and jazz dance to the ballet’s choreography.

For more on the history of The Nutcracker check out:

Moscow Ballet’s History of The Nutcracker

How The Nutcracker Colonized American Ballet

No Sugar Plums Here: The Dark, Romantic Roots of The Nutcracker

For more information about different versions of The Nutcracker, visit:

Explore Four Different Versions of the Ballet


Finding the Right ‘Nutcracker’ for You and Yours

Elle magazine, Inside 3 Very Different Versions of ‘The Nutcracker’



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