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The Nutcracker Ballet – Everything You Need to Know

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The Nutcracker is not only one of the world’s most famous and beloved ballets, it is one of the most popular shows to watch at Christmas. Every year, thousands of theatregoers attend the English National Ballet production of The Nutcracker at The London Coliseum along with many other productions across the UK. As the production has come to be such an integral part of the Christmas calendar, we have delved into the history and themes of this beautiful ballet to create the ultimate guide to The Nutcracker.

  1. What is the Story of The Nutcracker?
    1. The Nutcracker and the Mouse King
    2. The Nutcracker Ballet Story
  2. The Nutcracker Characters
    1. The Nutcracker
    2. Clara
    3. Drosselmeyer
    4. The Mouse King
    5. The Sugar Plum Fairy
  3. Who Wrote The Nutcracker Ballet?
  4. The Nutcracker Music
  5. What are Some Notable Productions of The Nutcracker?
  6. Where Can I See The Nutcracker?

What is the Story of The Nutcracker?

The Nutcracker and the Mouse King

Cover to The Nutcracker and the Mouse King
Cover illustration for the original story

The Nutcracker ballet is based on a story by Prussian author E. T. A. Hoffmann, The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, which was featured in a collection of German-language children’s stories first published in 1816. However, it is said that the ballet is more closely based on the French adaptation of Hoffmann’s story by Alexandre Dumas, which was altered somewhat to make it less frightning and lighter in tone. The story begins on Christmas eve and tells of a young girl called Marie, godchild of the brilliant clockmaker Drosselmeyer. While Drosselmeyer gifts many ingenious clockwork toys to Marie and her siblings, Marie is most fond of a traditional toy nutcracker in the shape of a soldier. When her brother breaks the nutcracker, by trying to crack a nut that is too hard, Marie is upset. She takes a ribbon from her dress and uses it as a bandage to treat her broken toy.

Later that night, as Marie stays with the nutcracker after her bed time, it comes to life along with other toys from the cabinet. As an army of mice, lead by the seven-headed Mouse King, invade the house, the nutcracker leads the toys into battle. The mice overwhelm the nutcracker’s toy army until Marie throws her slipper at the Mouse King, then promptly faints. In the morning, she tells her parents of the battle but they do not believe her, and insist that she was only dreaming.

Illustration to The Nutcracker and the Mouse King by Vladimir Makovsky, 1882
An illustration from The Nutcracker and the Mouse King by Vladimir Makovsky, 1882

Marie learns the long and complicated story behind the nutcracker from Drosselmeyer. It is a story of a king, who recruited an inventor, also called Drosselmeyer, to find a cure for his daughter, Princess Pirlipat, who had been cursed to look ugly by the Mouse Queen as revenge for her many children who have been killed in mousetraps. Drosselmeyer’s nephew was the only one who could crack the magical nut needed to break the curse, but in performing the required ritual, he stepped on the Mouse Queen and the curse was transferred to him. This left him with a large, round head, wide mouth and fluffy white beard. He had been transformed into a nutcracker, which caused Princess Pirlipat to callously reject him for his disfiguration.

Later, Marie is taunted by the Mouse Queen. The Nutcracker fights and kills the Mouse King and brings back his seven crowns, then whisks Marie off the Land of Dolls, where she is enchanted by many magical sights. When she returns her parents still do not believe her. She promises the nutcracker that she would never reject him for his looks as Pirlipat had once done and at that moment, the curse is broken and he recovers his original form as Drosselmeyer’s nephew, who promises to marry Marie. Together, they travel back to the Doll Kingdom, where Marie is crowned queen.

The Nutcracker Ballet Story

To fit the medium of ballet, the plot of The Nutcracker and the Mouse King is simplified in The Nutcracker, although it maintains the whimsical charm of the original story. Many productions will slightly alter the plot and character names can vary, but most will roughly follow the outline of the original libretto by Marius Petipa. The majority of productions follow the below four-scene plot structure.

Scene 1: The Party

A grand party scene in The Nutcracker at the London Coliseum.
The grand Christmas Eve party at the Stahlmbaum’s stately home

It is Christmas Eve and the Stahlmbaums are hosting a party in their grand, stately home. Their enormous, beautiful Christmas Tree dominates the scene. The children, Fritz and Clara, dance as they welcome guests to the party. Eventually, Drosselmeyer arrives with two life-sized clockwork dolls, which are so lifelike they become the talk of the party. They begin to dance, and everyone is delighted.Drosselmeyer presents Fritz and Clara with their gifts. Clara’s is a traditional nutcracker that many guests at the party soon become delighted with. Fitz becomes jealous of Clara’s gift, takes the nutcracker from Clara and breaks it, leaving Clara devastated. Drosselmeyer fixes the nutcracker with a magic handkerchief and it is placed under the tree. Later that night, after everyone has gone to bed, Clara returns to the tree to check on her nutcracker, embraces it, and falls asleep holding it.

Scene 2: The Fight

On the strike of midnight, Clara mysteriously begins to shrink in size, with the Christmas tree looming enormously above her. An army of mice under the command of the Mouse King, invades the room. The toys under the tree, including the nutcracker, come to life and fight the mice, but they are defeated. Upon seeing her beloved nutcracker captured by the mice, Clara throws her slipper at the Mouse King, who is knocked to the floor. The mice finally retreat.

The nutcracker and Mouse King fight in The Nutcracker at the London Coliseum
The Nutcracker duels with the Mouse King

Scene 3: The Forest

The nutcracker transforms into a dashing prince and whisks Clara away to a snowy, enchanted forest, where snowflakes dance all around them.

Scene 4: The Kingdom of Sweets

The prince and Clara continue their journey into the Kingdom of Sweets and are greeted by the Sugar Plum Fairy. Upon hearing of their battle with Mouse King, the Sugar Plum Fairy rewards them with a feast of delicious treats. Sumptuous foods from all over the world are presented to them, such as Russian candy canes, Spanish chocolate and Arabian coffee. Other characters such as Danish Shepherdesses and Mother Ginger and her many children join the celebrations. The Sugar Plum Fairy and her husband, the Cavalier, finish the celebrations with a final dance.

The Sugar Plum Fairy and Cavalier in The Nutcracker at the London Coliseum
The Sugar Plum Fairy and the Cavalier in the English National Ballet production

The next morning, Clara wakes up to find herself back home, under the Christmas tree, embracing her beloved nutcracker.

The Nutcracker Characters

Clara and The Nutcracker in the English National Ballet production at the London Coliseum.
Clara and The Nutcracker in the English National Ballet production

The Nutcracker

A wooden nutcracker in the shape of a soldier, with a mouth that opens wide to crack nuts. These toys are a traditional Christmas gift in Germany and in folklore, bring good fortune and protection against evil spirits. Clara’s nutcracker in the ballet comes to life on Christmas Eve and later takes the form of a dashing prince.

Clara

Clara is a young girl and goddaughter of the eccentric inventor Drusselmeyer, who gives her the titular nutcracker as a gift on Christmas Eve. Her magical journey on that evening could indicate she is in touch with the mystical fairy world, or that she has a very active imagination.

Drosselmeyer

Clara’s godfather or uncle, depending on the production. He is a brilliant clockmaker and inventor who seems to have some magical powers. He gives Clara the Nutcracker as a Christmas gift, sending her on her mystical adventure.

Drosselmeyer in The Nutcracker at the London Coliseum
Drosselmeyer delights the children at the Christmas Eve party

The Mouse King

The evil king of an army of mice that wages war against the Nutcracker and his toy comrades. In the original story, the Mouse King has seven heads and wears seven crowns. A Mouse Queen also appears as one of the main antagonists in the children’s story, but usually doesn’t appear in the ballet.

The Sugar Plum Fairy

A beautiful, mysterious being who resides in the Land of Sweets. She is usually depicted as having a close resemblance with Clara’ sister, Louise. She is married to a handsome Cavalier and their dance together is one of the highlights of the ballet.

Who Wrote The Nutcracker Ballet?

The original story was written by German fantasy author E. T. A. Hoffmann. The ballet was a collaboration between choreographers Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov. The Nutcracker music was composed by legendary Russian Romantic composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.

Portrait of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.
The Nutcracker composer, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, whose other ballets include Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty

Petipa wrote the libretto (script) of the original production based on Hoffmann‘s story. The Nutcracker is one of three ballets composed by Tchaikovsky, the others being Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty. All three remain some of the most performed ballets in history and all enjoy widespread popularity to this day, particularly around the Christmas season.

The Nutcracker Music

The music of The Nutcracker is some of the best-known work from Tchaikovsky, along with his The Seasons and 1812 Overture. Even people who have never experienced the ballet will be familiar with the iconic melodies from The Nutcracker, which are used extensively in Christmas-themed television shows, films and adverts. “The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” was one of the pieces used in Disney’s Fantasia and allusions to it can be heard in John Williams’ soundtrack to Home Alone. That particular piece is also a favourite in mechanical music boxes, particularly as Christmas gifts. A somewhat unexpected nod to the music of The Nutcracker is the use of the Russian Dance “Trepak” in the Nintendo Game Boy port of popular video game, Tetris.

Did you know? Tchaikovsky’s score includes not only a wide range of orchestral instruments, but also a selection of toy drums, cymbals, cuckoos and trumpets, which adds to the child-like wonder and Christmas feel of the music.

Tchaikovsky later took eight pieces from The Nutcracker ballet music and worked them into The Nutcracker Suite, which is intended for concert performances and remains popular with symphonies to this day.

What are Some Notable Productions of The Nutcracker Ballet?

As one of the most popular ballets in the world, The Nutcracker receives many new and recurring productions each year. While many try to retain the traditional visuals and choreography, some companies produce new and experimental takes on the story. Notable productions of The Nuctracker in the UK include:

The English National Ballet at the London Coliseum

English National Ballet The Nutcracker production artwork

This is the must-see production of The Nutcracker ballet in London. The English National Ballet Nutcracker was first staged it in 1950 and to this day it remains a show that is spectacular in its production design and true to the original vision of the piece. The production is currently choreographed by Wayne Eagling. In 2020, during the Covid pandemic and social distancing, a pared-back production took place at the London Coliseum titled Nutcracker Delights.

Matthew Bourne’s Nutcracker!

Matthew Bourne's Nutcracker! production artwork

Celebrated English choreographer Sir Matthew Bourne OBE first brought his colourful, modernised reworking of The Nutcracker to the Edinburgh Fringe in 1991. In this version, the nutcracker more closely resembles a ventriloquist dummy as a toy, and a muscled body-builder when in human form. The Sugar Plum Fairy is reimagined as conniving seductress, Princess Sugar, who plots to steal Clara’s hunky newfound love from her. The production, while a departure from traditional versions, retains most of Tchaikovsky’s score and has proven a hit with theatregoers. It has toured the UK multiple times since it debuted and played successful seasons in the US.

The Royal Ballet at the Royal Opera House

Artwork for The Royal Ballet production of The Nutcracker at the Royal Opera House

Another top choice for The Nutcracker in London, the Royal Ballet present a spellbinding production in their home of the Royal Opera House every Christmas. The Royal Ballet Nutcracker is so iconic that they offer both family and adults-only tours behind the scenes to show how the magic is created.

The English Youth Ballet

One of the recurring productions of the English Youth Ballet’s repertoire is a spectacular, traditional production of The Nutcracker that features over 200 costumes. This one is perfect for children looking to experience their first ballet. This production tours regional theatres across the UK every year, so check their website for details.

Where Can I See The Nutcracker in 2022?

Christmas in London would not be complete without the English National Ballet production of The Nutcracker at the London Coliseum. This spellbinding production features over 100 dancers and an awe-inspiring set. Every year it is a hit with ballet-fans old and new, with many families making it an annual tradition to see the show.

This year the Northern Ballet bring their production to the New Victoria Theatre in Woking, choreographed by David Nixon OBE. Using spectacular sets and elaborate costumes, The Northern Ballet present a festive, traditional take on the ballet.

For a complete list of all productions of The Nutcracker currently booking on SeatPlan, click here.

What is Your Favourite Production of The Nutcracker?

Is The Nutcracker a Christmas tradition for your family? Do you prefer a traditional production or the more experimental ones? Let us know by posting a comment below.

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