'Nutcracker' 101

Here's a primer for one of the most popular and beloved ballets in the world

Carla Amancio and Andre Valladon rehearse for Dance Alive National Ballet's 2008 production of "The Nutcracker" at the Phillips Center.

Published: Sunday, December 2, 2012 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, November 30, 2012 at 6:55 p.m.

It's the story of little girl, a toy that turns into a prince and an evil mouse. A simple tale of a child's fantasy, transformed through music and dance into a holiday tradition for generations of children.


Performances of ‘The Nutcracker'

Dance Alive National Ballet
Where: Phillips Center, 3201 Hull Road, Gainesville
When: 7 p.m. Dec. 14 and 2 p.m. Dec. 15-16
Tickets: $15 for 18 and under, $25 seniors, $25-$35 adults
Information: 392-2787

Marion Ballet Theatre at Jeanne Benson-Smith Academy of Dance
Where: Ocala Civic Theatre, 4337 E. Silver Springs Blvd., Ocala
When: Dec. 7-16
Tickets: $10 and $20
Information: 236-2274

Florida Dance Theatre
at Mary Ellen School of Dance
Where: West Port High School, 3733 SW 80th Ave., Ocala
When: 1:30 and 6:30 p.m. Dec. 16
Tickets: $8-$10 general, $12-$14 reserved
Information: 732-2030

Debuting a mere 120 years ago at the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia, "The Nutcracker" ballet by famed composer Peter Tchaikovsky — based on E.T.A. Hoffman's book "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King" — initially met with a so-so response.

Tchaikovsky died a year later in 1893, never knowing his ballet would someday rank among the icons of the holiday season.

"It appeals to the child in all of us," said Kim Tuttle, artistic director for the professional dance company Dance Alive!, which performs at the Phillips Center later this month, and at national venues this season. "It's happy and it has classical dance to music that's high-spirited and beautiful. It brings us back to the innocence of youth."

"The Nutcracker" didn't become popular in the United States until 1944, when it was first performed by the San Francisco Ballet — 10 years after it was first staged in London. Before that, it was a purely Russian property.

Now, there are hundreds of ballet companies — professional and amateur — across the U.S. that every December break out the Sugar Plum Fairy, the Mouse King and the Snowflakes. Still, some presentations might not be as recognizable as others.

Two years ago, New York Times dance critic Alastair Macaulay spent six weeks on the road taking in as many productions of "The Nutcracker" as he could. He managed nearly 30, including: New York Dance Theater Workshop's campy "Nut/Cracker;" a jazzy contemporary version of "Nut ReMix" in Memphis; something called "Nutcracker: Rated R" set in 1980s New York and featuring the Mouse King's army wearing fishnet tights; and a production performed by puppets.

"It lends itself to a lot of interpretation from dance company to [dance] company and over time even," said Alora Haynes, chair of Santa Fe College's Fine Arts Department. Excerpts from the ballet's second act were part of a holiday performance at Santa Fe's Fine Arts Hall Saturday, and the performance kept to classical movements, said Haynes.

"I think that's what made it a tradition," said Haynes, who calls the ballet is a staple within the performing arts world and beyond. "Some people have done it in a comical direction, or an updated version in modern times."

Haynes said the Nutcracker is a time-honored tradition because it helps audiences suspend their belief for a short time.

"We go to the theater to see beauty and magic, and everything about the Nutcracker is magical and beautiful."

For those who would like to know who and what's going on up on stage, below is a primer on what's arguably the most popular and beloved ballet in the world.


It's Christmas Eve at the Stahlbaum house. Their children, Fritz and Clara, await the guests -— especially Herr Drosselmeyer. He arrives with special gifts for the kids: for Fritz, a hobby horse, and for Clara, a Nutcracker painted to look like a soldier.

After the guests have gone and the family's abed, Clara sneaks downstairs to nuzzle with her toy — and finds an evil Mouse King and mouse minions attacking the house. The Mouse King is defeated by the Nutcracker and Clara, who hits the rodent leader in the head with her slipper.

The Nutcracker becomes a Cavalier prince and Clara a princess. He takes her to the Land of Sweets, where Clara is greeted by the Sugar Plum Fairy and entertained by an array of international dances — Russian, Chinese, Arabian and Spanish — as well as other sweets.

After a final dance with her prince, Clara awakens to find herself back at home, clutching her beloved Nutcracker on Christmas morning and wondering if it was all just a dream.


The first act takes place in the Stahlbaum home and the Land of Snow.

■ Clara: A young girl with a fondness for soldiers and sweets.

■ Fritz: Clara's younger brother; he breaks her gift Nutcracker trying to wrestle it from her.

■ Herr Drosselmeyer: A toymaker; in some productions, he is their uncle or godfather, in others he's a colorful if eccentric magical character; he gives Clara the Nutcracker, and repairs it after Fritz breaks it.

■ Nutcracker/Cavalier: A toy given to Clara; it comes alive to fight off the Mouse King and later becomes a Prince.

■ Mouse King and soldiers: Evil rodents who attack the Stahlbaum house after everyone has gone to bed.

■ Mr. and Mrs. Stahlbaum: Fritz and Clara's parents; in some productions, Mr. Stahlbaum is the town mayor and/or doctor.

■ Snow Queen and Snowflakes: Inhabitants of the Land of Snow, between the Stahlbaum home and the Prince's Land of Sweets.


The second act takes place in the Land of Sweets.

■ Sugar Plum Fairy: She greets Clara and her Prince and welcomes them to the Land of Sweets.

■ Mother Ginger: Kindly woman who cares for dozens of children aka polichinelles

■ Dancers of the Sweets: Chocolate (Spanish), coffee (Arabian), tea (Chinese), candy canes (Russian).

■ Sweets makers and other residents of the Land of Sweets

■ Dew Drop Fairy and flowers


■ A dancer can go through three to four pairs of pointe shoes during rehearsals and run of “The Nutcracker” — at about $100 per pair. With as many as 40 dancers in a production, that's $4,000 in pointe shoes alone, says Lisa Hamilton with the Florida Dance Theatre in Ocala.

■ The snow falling at the end of Act One actually is shredded paper blown out by special snow blowers in the fly above the stage. Marion Ballet Theatre director Nicole Benson says “Nutcracker” company members “continue to find pieces of snow from the Forest throughout the year in some of the most unique places. It must be a sign we must forever keep our tradition alive.”

■ In 31 years of presenting “The Nutcracker,” many members of previous productions have come home to volunteer their services in the current production, according to Benson. Many have gone on to create dance careers for themselves around the country.

■ “The Nutcracker Suite” and “The Nutcracker” ballet are slightly different; the “Suite” is eight of the most popular pieces from the full 20-piece ballet. The “Suite” was performed in concert nine months before the ballet debuted.

■ Tchaikovsky scored the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” to use the newly developed celesta, an instrument that produced sounds like “sprays of a fountain.”

■ The average male dancer lifts more than 1.5 tons of ballerinas during a performance, at about 100 pounds per lift, according to the Alberta Ballet in Canada.

■ The average tutu takes 60 to 90 hours and 100 yards of ruffle to create, according to the Alberta Ballet. They can cost as much as $2,000.

■ A three-hour ballet performance is roughly equivalent to two 90-minute soccer games back to back or running 18 miles, also according to the Alberta Ballet.

■ There are 21 exact matches for “The Nutcracker” as either a movie or TV show listed on imdb.com.

■ “Home Alone's” precocious Macaulay Culkin plays the Nutcracker and Prince in a 1993 movie version of “The Nutcracker.”

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