Posted by: Liv Pitcher | November 27, 2021

Musings on “The Nutcracker Ballet”

In July of 2020, in order to brighten spirits during the height of the pandemic, the Russian State Ballet and Opera House released a recorded version of The Nutcracker on YouTube. I have always been incredibly impressed and fascinated by ballet and wanted to take this opportunity to write about my thoughts not only of this performance, but how it reflects Victorian society. The first performance of the piece was in 1892 in Russia, composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s homeland. Despite life in 19th century Russia and Victorian England being quite different, the story, staging, set, and costumes are all incredibly British. This ballet offers an interesting case study of not just art from the era, but how other nations viewed the United Kingdom. 

Firstly, I would like to start by discussing casting in this production compared to others I have seen. I tend to prefer the newer interpretations of the story that certain companies tell. The New York City Ballet, who follows the Balanchine choreography, fulfills the roles of Clara/Marie, Fitz, and the Prince/Nutcracker from the students in their junior company, the School of American Ballet. This 2020 production used the original 1892 choreography by Lev Ivanov, which slightly disappointingly used an all-adult cast. It is understandable why this choice was made in the 19th century as ballet performances were almost entirely adults, but in documentaries I have watched, age appropriate casting gives the entire production a greater sense of magic, and, in real life, is an exciting opportunity for younger dancers to meet those who are signed to a company. The Clara in this production was likely in at least her late 20’s from what I can tell, making her obsession with the Nutcracker doll appear a smidge odd and her journey through the wondrous land feel a tad more like a drug-induced nightmare than other versions. Furthermore, due to the young age of the protagonists, there should be no romantic tension between Clara and the Nutcracker. When she is crowned as queen of his land at the end of the first act, it is because she saved him, not because he has a romantic attraction towards her. This is further highlighted when the two sit up-stage for the entirety of Act II while the professionals perform for them in a show of gratitude to Clara for saving them. 

Another part of what irked me about this production were the costumes. When watching a ballet, it is always my main focus. In the opening scene of the party, all the women playing the parents are covered in their jewels, and all their gowns are made from a variety of golden thread. In what I believe was an attempt to distinguish the dancers playing parents versus the children, the adults all have donned Marie Antoinette style white wigs, making them look more like members of British parliament than party goers. All the younger girls are wearing knee-length dresses made of fluffy tulle and lace, each with a different ribbon. In American and British productions, the clothing is often far more historically accurate to the time. Clara is usually the only one permitted to wear a brightly colored dress, with those around her in far more muted mustards and maroons. In the Russian production, her dress looked so similar to everyone’s that I could not hope to distinguish her. I feel the grandeur of the dresses in the Russian version reflects how the world might imagine a Victorian Christmas. They were by no doubt lavish, but upper-middle class people were certainly not wearing gold dresses. 

Image from NYC Ballet production of The Nutcracker
Promotion material from the Russian State Ballet’s Nutcracker

On a final note about the costuming, I have no grand point to make here, but I just really disliked the Snowflake tutus. It is my favorite scene in any ballet from the choreography, to the costuming, the sets, and of course the music. The Russian version looked promising until the first dancer sashayed onto the stage with half a snowflake on her head.

Photo from Russian State Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker
NYC Ballet’s The Nutcracker

To return to my original point of an outsider’s interpretation of Victorian culture, similarly to the extravagance of the gowns, there appear to be further comments on the consumerist nature of the British people in the 19th century. The entire plot of the ballet revolves around toys and delightful sweets coming to life, both objects that were very expensive at the time this ballet premiered. This theme is highlighted through smaller aspects of the ballet, for example, all the girls have dolls at the beginning of the show with whom they dance. The toys look eerily like their new owners. Furthermore, the sets within the house are stunning and appear incredibly expensive. I believe the claim could be made that the English obsession with the home transmitted across the world, with the country promoting an image of all having rather extreme wealth, when in reality, many people were suffering at this time. 

I would sum up my observations of the Russian production as enjoying the parts that remained more akin to the Russian culture. The performers on stage looked thrilled to be showcasing numbers which are inspired by elements of Russian dance that are not usually included in ballet. Furthermore, due to Clara being played by a prima, she had many costume changes, which meant that she was a far more dynamic and active character in the story. I now plan on trying to find other ballets by this company, perhaps Firebird, which do not have as much of the cultural baggage as The Nutcracker. However, this production was not The Nutcracker was not The Nutcracker of my childhood. It was a story about two young adults falling passionately in love and ruling a kingdom. Yet, the dancing was lovely, and the performers were incredibly talented, so it was an enjoyable production to watch. 

Works Cited

The Nutcracker. Russian State Ballet and Opera. 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tR_Z1LUDQuQ 

Macaulay, Alastair. “10 Ways to Tell if Your ‘Nutcracker’ Is Traditional.” New York Times. 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/21/arts/dance/what-makes-a-traditional-nutcracker-ballet.html


Responses

  1. As someone who danced for like 15 years (10 years of which were ballet, though I never danced in a Nutcracker production), I think you’ve hit the nail on the head, Liv. The snowflake tutu is absolutely disappointing, and it is less appealing to me, too, when adults play children in the Nutcracker. Your comments on the Victorian aspects of the ballet are also interesting.


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