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About the Change

‘Nutcracker Time’

Jeffery Taylor with some history, thoughts and quotes on the biggest Christmas ballet of them all...

© Jeffery Taylor
Former dancer, Dance Critic and an Arts feature writer for the Sunday Express. Pub 09 12 2007

© John Ross

More thoughts on the 'Nut', and UK productions, from Ian Palmer

'Nutcracker' reviews across the world

more Jeffery Taylor reviews

Web version held on by kind permission of Jeffery Taylor and the Sunday Express

Express Website

Little girls in sparkly frocks waving spangly wands, pintsized brothers sporting neat partings and sulky faces; Dad sheepish in velvet reindeer horns, Mum’s Sugar Plum Fairy tiara heading south. It just has to be Christmas and a family outing to The Nutcracker ballet. It is the time of year for Nutcrackermania.

During this holiday season an estimated 500,000 parents and offspring will flock to see over half a dozen different versions of Nutcracker across the country. Whether it is Matthew Bourne’s outrageous finger lickin’ Sweetieland, English National Ballet’s hilarious knockabout or the Royal Ballet’s sublime traditionalism, we Brits just cannot wait for our annual dose of all that is sweet and fluffy. But the sugar induced high does not stop there. Tens of thousands of pounds will purchase tons of pink mini tutus, candy sticks and toy Nutcrackers; cookware, bed quilts, even The Simpsons, Hilary Clinton and The Village People get in on the act with promotional merchandise.

Later this month ITV’s South Bank Show is responding to our mass regression to the imagined joys of childhood by screening 'The Nutcracker Story'. The programme goes out on Boxing Day 26 December, 11.15 pm. Director Margy Kinmonth traces this theatrical phenomenon’s progress from first performance in 1892 to Andrei Konchalovsky’s $80 million movie 'Nutcracker – The True Story' starring Nathan Lane in 2008.

The first British performance of the full length Nutcracker was in 1934 by the Vic Wells Ballet, now the Royal Ballet. Starring Alicia Markova as the Sugar Plum Fairy, it also included a 15-year-old girl called Peggy Hookham, later the legendary Margot Fonteyn, making her stage debut as the “third snowflake of the second group on the left….I never looked back,” she writes in her autobiography

But the current global obsession for sugar and spice and all things nice that has reached Freudian proportions, was launched in the West in 1940 by Walt Disney’s ground breaking animation Fantasia, featuring Leopold Stokowski conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra. Not only did the cartoon bring Beethoven (the Pastoral Symphony), Dukas (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice) and Ponchielli (Dance of the Hours) to a cinema near you but featured Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, an instant favourite. Choreographer George Balanchine and the New York City Ballet appeared live on national American television in The Nutcracker on Christmas Day in 1958 and spawned countless imitations that have endlessly multiplied.

Maria Kowroski as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Charles Askegard as her Cavalier in Balanchine's Nutcracker
© Paul Kolnik

Since then success, glamour, beautiful Princesses and handsome virile Princes have created a potent magic around ETA Hoffman’s 1816 children’s fairy story The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. Hoffman’s rites of passage fable is now one of the world’s favourite pieces of theatre, let alone ballets. Yet it was conceived and gestated in the heart and soul of a man wrenched apart by addiction to nicotine, alcohol and, with almost certain fatal consequences, beautiful young men.

On a chilly autumn night early in November 1893, angry male voices shattered the respectable quiet of the government district of Russia’s capital, St Petersburg. Down the steps of one stuccoed townhouse, the home of Nikolai Jakobi, chief prosecutor of the Russian senate, stumbled a dishevelled figure, ashen faced and shaking with a terrible anxiety. The distressed man in top hat and silver handled walking cane was instantly recognisable as Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, 53, a favourite of Tsar Alexander III, and lionised as the first native Russian composer to gain an international reputation. Four days later he was dead.

Immediately rumours of suicide swept through St Petersburg. All his life Tchaikovsky was torn apart by his homosexuality, against the law in Imperial Russia and punishable by flogging with birch rods and exile in Siberia. As his reputation as a musical genius grew so did his fear of being “outed” as gay in a society merciless in its annihilation of those foolish enough to be found out. That the Tsar’s brother, Grand Duke Sergei openly adored and co-habited with his adjutant was a constant source of off the record ribaldry. When a letter was sent, doubtless by a jilted, jealous lover to Jakobi and the Tsar accusing Tchaikovsky of seducing a young aristocrat, the nephew of Duke Stenbock-Thurmor, smirking rumour became official scandal. No amount of alcohol could disguise the fact. Tchaikovsky, rightly or wrongly, felt doomed.

St Petersburg Ballet Theatre's Nutcracker
© Konstantin Tachkin

His panic was shared by his alma mater, the College of Law, an institution well known for its loose sexual mores. It’s frightened members convened a “court of honour” on that fateful November night and bluntly made clear to the haunted genius there was only one “honourable” way out. His former school mate, a lawyer August Gerke, allegedly took the poison to Tchaikovsky’s apartment and placed it in his hand. Sipping the deadly liquid slowly to avoid a suspicious instant death, Tchaikovsky took four days to die.

Officially the cause of death was cholera, but Russia imposed stringent health and safety safeguards in the face of what was a 19th century plague. A doctor should immediately be summoned, the house quarantined and the body straight away sealed in a zinc coffin and removed to a safe place. Instead a whole day passed before medical aid was sought, grieving friends and family paid their respects to the corpse for the following two days and the coffin lay open in the city’s Kazan Cathedral as thousands of mourners filed past paying their respects to a national hero. Based on that evidence alone, whatever killed Tchaikovsky, it certainly was not cholera.

In the preceding twelve months, Tchaikovsky had produced two of the greatest works in the classical opus, The Nutcracker ballet and the Sixth “Pathetique” Symphony. Both were ruthlessly panned by the critics. At the time of the notorious “court of honour” Tchaikovsky, a known depressive, felt defeated both as a man and an artist. Most dedicated students of the great composer’s life now believe that suicide was the real cause of his death, but lack of concrete evidence ensures that only one unassailable fact remains, we shall never know.

Christopher Hampson and Gerald Scarfe’s Nutcracker for English National Ballet
© Patrick Baldwin

The South Bank Show extols Tchaikovsky’s sensitive, sublime and triumphant score for The Nutcracker ballet as the prevailing quality that perennially attracts the public as well as showing tantalising glimpses on the set of Konchalovsky’s 2008 Nutcracker movie. The cameras also have unprecedented access into the orchestra pit of St Petersburg’s Maryinsky Theatre where The Nutcracker was premiered in October, 1892. They focus in intriguing close up on Valeri Gergiev, the theatre’s artistic director and chief conductor. “The best in us is always linked to childhood,” he says. “Tchaikovsky knew this,” he goes on, “and there is nothing cynical in the Nutcracker music. It is elegant and childlike and we cannot resist entering that world.”

David Bintley, director of Birmingham Royal Ballet agrees about Tchaikovsky’s music. “The sense of unity and symphonic composition,” says Bintley, whose company’s production of The Nutcracker is reviewed elsewhere, “goes far beyond anything then expected of ballet music. It also strikes a chord in adults,” he adds. “It provokes a sense of a higher mystery at this time of year that breeds bonhomie and a spiritual sense of good will. We would all be poorer without it.”

Natasha Oughtred and Jamie Bond in Birmingham Royal Ballet's production of The Nutcracker
© Bill Cooper

Peter Schaufuss, 56, one of the greatest dancers of his generation, features in the television programme. He is currently running and choreographing a Danish ballet company bearing his name. He was artistic director of English National Ballet between 1984 and 1990, then known as London Festival Ballet. “When we did our traditional 3 week season of Nutcracker at London’s Festival Hall,” he remembers, “we broke records and took £100,000 at the box office.” Which converts into twice the amount in today’s currency, a colossal amount of money. “That was our only source of income for new spending.” During Schaufuss’s 5 ½ year tenure, The Nutcracker paid for an astonishing 32 new productions, including 6 three act ballets.

A populist view is put forward by producer and choreographer, Gillian Lynne who first danced the Nutcracker at 15 years old during World War II with the Molly Lake Ballet Guild. She went on to choreograph West End blockbuster hits Cats (1981), Phantom of the Opera (1986), and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (2002). “Nutcracker’s not just ballet, it’s good theatre, too,” she says. “It’s the pantomime element that’s an answer to parents searching for somewhere to take the kids at Christmas. There are clowns, snowflakes and all sorts of funny people, and that glorious music.”

As Lynne correctly points out, The Nutcracker is a dancer’s ballet with challenges in every scene. None has made the role of Sugar Plum Fairy more her own than Romanian-born Royal Ballet star, Alina Cojocaru, 26. Created a Royal Ballet principal dancer at just 19, Christmas and the Nutcracker occupy a special place in her heart. “For me,” she says, “Sugar Plum Fairy represents the joy of dance. When I was little in Bucharest, at Christmas I would creep out of bed when everyone was asleep. I would turn on the tree lights and just stand and stare all night. When I do the Sugar Plum duet with the Prince at the end of the ballet, Tchaikovsky’s music just carries me away. I feel again the joy, excitement and happiness that I experienced as a little girl back home.”

Snowflakes in the Royal Ballet's Nutcracker
© John Ross

Anthony Russell-Roberts has been the Administrative Director of the Royal Ballet, whose home is at Covent Garden’s Royal Opera House. For him The Nutcracker does much more than underpin the budget. “Nutcracker should be a story of magic as well as majesty,” he says. “Christmas is a time when families are together and the tree is the focal point. I sincerely believe that our vast on stage tree adds to the spiritual element of the audience’s enjoyment at this time of the year, whatever your religious beliefs may be.” And even the troubled genius Tchaikovsky would not argue with that.

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