Thursday, January 1, 2015

Balanchine's The Nutcracker: Russia+America

Choreographer George Balanchine's production of Tschaikovsky's ballet The Nutcracker has become the most famous stage production of the ballet performed in the U.S.    The New York City Ballet's annual production of The Nutcracker is at the heart of New York City's year-end holiday season.  

According to German folklore, nutcrackers were given as keepsakes to bring good luck to your family and protect your home. The legend says that a nutcracker represents power and strength and serves like a trusty watch dog guarding your family from evil spirits and danger. 


   In 1816, German Romantic author of fantastic tales, E T A Hoffman    published  "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King" , a scary fairy-tale intended only for adults.   Hoffmann was actually named Ernst Theodor Wilhelm Hoffmann, but he changed the Wilhelm to Amadeus out of admiration for Mozart.  He drew, he painted and    wrote stories, spooky tales that trespassed the border between fantasy and reality. 
In 1944  the French writer Alexandre Dumas père (he of The Three Musketeers) altered that original version.  He gave it the title "Histoire d'un casse-noisette"  and his popularity ensured its success there. His version was not a strict translation but an adaptation, a retelling in his own words.    Dumas made the story   lighter and less scary.
Nutcracker
6 Avenue
Manhattan

It was Dumas' version that was eventually to provide the script for the ballet.  After the success of "The Sleeping Beauty"  in 1890, Ivan Vsevolozhsky, the director of the Imperial Theatres, commissioned the famous Russian compose Peter Tchaikovsky to compose a double-bill program featuring both an opera and a ballet. The opera would be "Iolanta". For the ballet, Tchaikovsky   joined  forces with  the French ballet dancer, teacher and choreographer Marius Petipa,  with whom he had collaborated on The Sleeping Beauty.   Petipa' s choice was   "The Tale of the Nutcracker"  by Dumas.  Petipa gave Tchaikovsky extremely detailed instructions for the composition of each number. Tchaikovsky wrote to his friend: I am daily becoming more and more attuned to my task.”     The completion of the work was interrupted for a short time when Tchaikovsky visited the United States for twenty-five days to conduct concerts for the opening of Carnegie Hall.
San Francisco Ballet

The first complete performance outside Russia took place in England in 1934  staged by Nicholas Sergeyev after Petipa's original choreography. The ballet's first complete United States performance was seventy years ago, on 24 December 1944, by the San Francisco Ballet.  After the enormous success of this production, San Francisco Ballet has presented Nutcracker every Christmas Eve and throughout the winter season.
Balanchine

George Balanchine, who grew up in Russia, danced the role of the Prince in The Nutcracker in 1919 when he was 15 years old.    Balanchine   studied  dance at the Russian Imperial Ballet School and music at the conservatory in St. Petersburg. He danced and choreographed in Europe before Lincoln Kirstein invited him to move to America.     Kirstein   grew up in a wealthy Jewish Bostonian family and attended the private Berkshire School, graduating in 1926.  His interest in Balanchine and ballet started when he saw Balanchine's Apollo performed by the Ballets Russes.  Kirstein became determined to bring Balanchine to America.  In 1934, Balanchine and Kirstein founded the School of American Ballet in New York City.
New York City Ballet at Lincoln Center

Balanchine decided to choreograph his own version of The Nutcracker for his company. The New York City Ballet gave its first annual performance of George Balanchine's staging of The Nutcracker in February 1954.
Barbara Karinska   (Varvara Andreevna Jmoudsky ) designed the costumes.   She was trained in embroidery in Russia and worked in Paris and London before moving to New York in 1939.   The only costumes still in use from the original 1954 production   are the Grandmother’s cape and the embroidered appliqués on the women’s costumes in the Tea dance.
Rouben Ter-Arutunian   was the scenic designer.  Ter-Arutunian was Armenian and studied and worked in Berlin, Vienna, and Paris. He moved to the United States in 1951.


New York City Ballet usually presents 47 performances of the ballet annually. All 90 dancers, 62 musicians, 32 stagehands and two casts of 50 young students each from the School of American Ballet join forces to make each performance as magical as possible.

George Balanchine's The Nutcracker  is one of the most complex theatrical, staged ballets in the Company's active repertory. The popularity of the ballet is immense and it provides an unforgettable spark to everyone's holiday season.
Time magazine wrote in February  1954 :"The orchestra launched into the tuneful old Tchaikovsky score, the curtain rose on a well-stuffed parlor, and for the next two hours Manhattan ballet fans lost themselves in George Balanchine's newest ballet, a full-length re-creation of The Nutcracker. It was one of the most cheerful evenings of make-believe the ballet had seen in years:"
Balanchine served as Ballet Master of New York City Ballet from its inception until his death, in 1983.

Over time, more major (and minor) regional ballet companies started performing the work during the Christmas season,  with many other great choreographers putting their stamp on the work: Rudolf Nureyev, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Alexei Ratmansky and Matthew Bourne all have their own esteemed versions. About half of all worldwide productions this year of "The Nutcracker" will be in the United States .   You still have  time to see the ballet this  season- the last performance is on the 3 of January.