10 Ways to Tell if Your ‘Nutcracker’ Is Traditional

10 Ways to Tell if Your ‘Nutcracker’ Is Traditional

Many people crave a traditional “Nutcracker,” often the one they grew up with. But frequently it turns out that their notion of “Nutcracker” tradition goes back only to the mid-20th century. And does even a “Nutcracker” connoisseur really want a production that makes no departures from the original? That way pedantry lies.

Still, it helps to follow “The Nutcracker” with a clear idea of what its makers envisioned. If we find that we prefer some of the alterations that have been made in the last century, that gives us new hope: “The Nutcracker” is a work in progress. And the chief reason for this is the marvel of the score — there’s always more going on in this music than any one staging can fulfill.

So here are 10 “Nutcracker” checkpoints to help you work out where your “Nutcracker” is or isn’t true to the ballet’s heart and (a different thing) its tradition.

1. THIS IS NOT A LOVE STORY Unlike almost every other ballet from the 19th century, “The Nutcracker” isn’t about falling in love. So if you see the heroine Clara dancing a romantic pas de deux with the Nutcracker prince, you’re watching an alternative version; I call this anti-“Nutcracker” behavior. You’re also watching an unnecessary cliché.

2. PATHS THAT MUST NOT CROSS Drosselmeyer should be seen only in Act I, the Sugarplum only in Act II. Part of the story’s mystery is that they never meet. Only the two lead children — the heroine and the Nutcracker Prince — meet both.


Roman Zhurbin as Drosselmeyer in the American Ballet Theater’s version, choreographed by Alexei Ratmansky.

Doug Gifford

3. THE OVERTURE: JUST LISTEN If you see any character during the overture, you’re watching a modern version. Tchaikovsky’s overture — with instruments playing high, fast and bouncy — is on the miniature scale of childhood itself, with passages of rhythmic syncopation that embody the excitement of a child’s eager anticipation. Just listen, listen, listen. But many productions, mistrusting an audience’s ability to cope without spectacle, try to distract from the music by starting to tell the story.

4. CHILD’S PLAY Clara — sometimes called Marie, as in Hoffmann’s original story and in George Balanchine’s version — should be played by a little girl; Drosselmeyer’s nephew (who later becomes the Nutcracker and then little prince) by a little boy. Their only dancing occurs at the opening Christmas party. (It’s not unusual, however, to see adult principal dancers in these roles.)

5. WHO’S ON POINT? Clara never dances on point, but the story brings her a series of increasingly marvelous women who do — clockwork toys at the party, the dancing Snowflakes, the Sweets and, above all, the Sugarplum, the dancing prima. (Well, that’s the rule. Many productions reduce the ballet’s contrasts by putting Clara on point throughout.)

6. DON’T MESS WITH THE SCORE Tchaikovsky’s musical composition has such integrity and variety that it should never be revised, cut or supplemented. And yet, and yet …. I know only two productions that play all of Tchaikovsky’s score in the right order — Mark Morris’s “The Hard Nut” and Alexei Ratmansky’s American Ballet Theater production, both of which count as alternative versions, changing the story more than most.


A giant tree, a small girl: A scene from “George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker” at New York City Ballet.

Andrea Mohin/The New York Times

7. ACT I’S BALLERINA? The Christmas tree must grow huge. As Balanchine said when fighting for money for his production’s tree in 1954, the tree is the ballerina of Act I. Some productions can’t afford an upwardly mobile tree; and some take the opportunity to turn the show into a psychodrama here. But the music, a gigantic crescendo of ascending phrases, tells you what’s needed.

8. TRANSFORMATION (NO DANCING, PLEASE) This is the most controversial of all. After the tree grows and after the battle between the toy soldiers and mice comes phenomenal music that should never be danced. True, Tchaikovsky gave it a strong dance-like rapture — but, like the overture, he meant it to stay undanced. This is transformation music in which the whole stage changes and we see the unknown territory through which the children will pass. Where there was one huge Christmas tree, now we see a whole snow-clad forest.

I know only one production that has the courage to leave this undanced: Balanchine’s. Many introduce a pas de deux here for the Snow Queen and her King — an anachronistic tradition that began around 1940. (Better that than the equally widespread romantic pas de deux for Clara and her Nutcracker. See No. 1)


Joshua Grant as Mother Ginger in Pacific Northwest Ballet’s production of “George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker.”

Elise Bakketun

9. KEEP THE PANTOMIME DAME Act II has to include Mother Ginger (or Mère Gigogne). She’s a larger-than-life fertility figure, a pantomime dame (drag character) whose crinoline hides multiple children — they dance their way out from under it and then back in. Audiences adore her, but for some reason European productions omit her. She’s not in good taste — and that’s the point. “The Nutcracker” is not just a show for the polite and pretty.

10. THE PAS DE DEUX The big Act II pas de deux has to be danced by the Sugarplum Fairy and her cavalier. If your cavalier doesn’t get his solo, you’re probably watching Balanchine’s version (which takes his “Ballet is woman” policy one degree too far). If you see Clara and her Nutcracker dance the Sugarplum numbers, you’re probably watching a production by someone who grew up in the Soviet Union, and you’re far into a mind-set light-years from the vision of 1892.


Sterling Hyltin and Andrew Veyette of New York City Ballet performing in “George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker” in 2016.

Andrea Mohin/The New York Times

There are other points to consider in “Nutcracker” tradition. After all, no production is completely faithful to the original. How, for example, does it end? In 1892 it was with a vision of bees dancing around a hive — something nobody has staged for over a century. Can we therefore say that any one ending is better than another?

I think so. Listen to how the score ends — with flowing music that implies travel, echoing the start of Act II. It does not take us back (as many productions do) to the start of Act I. Clara and the little Prince are, as if the original E.T.A. Hoffmann story, departing to yet other realms; they aren’t going back to her native Nuremberg.

The best productions of classics aren’t about puzzle-solving or filling in some 19th-century prescription. They’re about discovery and imagination, the very things at the heart of the “Nutcracker” story.

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