When it comes to generating keen anticipation as Christmas nears, Santa Claus isn't the only source. Every year at this time, people gear up for another appearance (or several) of "The Nutcracker," the ballet with ear-grabbing music by Tchaikovsky and a bunch of colorful characters.
As musicologist Richard Freed has written, there may be "several other ballets that are as respected or admired as this one, and several that might be considered in one sense or another more 'important,' but none that is more beloved."
In Baltimore and Annapolis, audiences can catch at least three "Nutcracker" productions the weekend before Christmas.
•There will be the third annual collaboration of Baltimore School for the Arts and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at the Modell Performing Arts Center at the Lyric.
•The much-traveled Moscow Ballet, with its 40 Russian dancers, returns to the Hippodrome for what is billed as the "Great Russian Nutcracker," joined onstage by 46 students honed by the Moving Company Dance Center in Cockeysville and with Concert Artists of Baltimore conducted by Lee Mills.
•And at the Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts in Annapolis, the Ballet Theatre of Maryland will present its 20th annual production with a corps of 40 professionals and 54 students.
To get you in the mood for all those gingerbread soldiers, feisty mice and waltzing flowers, here are some "Nutcracker" nuggets to chew on — stories behind the work and a look at how it is being approached by the companies performing it in the area.
All for one, one for all
It all starts with E.T.A. Hoffmann, the great German writer known for his fantasy stories. In 1816, he penned "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King," about the Christmas Eve adventures of 7-year-old girl who is drawn to a nutcracker toy that comes to life at night to battle a mess of mice. The story includes a trip to a doll kingdom and a whole lot of other strange stuff.
In 1844, French author Alexandre Dumas, pere, who gave us such ripsnorters as "The Count of Monte Cristo" and "The Three Musketeers," made his own version of Hoffmann's story. That's the one that eminent Russian-based, French choreographer Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov used to create a scenario for a new ballet that would have its 1892 premiere in St. Petersburg with music composed by Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky.
OK, there's no proof that Tchaikovsky thought about sugarplums while visiting Baltimore briefly during his 1891 visit to America, but he might have. We do know that he had started work on the score to "The Nutcracker" before he embarked on the trip, and we know he it wasn't coming easily to him.
After boarding the ship that would take him to America, depressed about the death of his sister, he wrote about "the absolute impossibility of depicting in music the Sugar-Plum Fairy." So maybe, weeks later, in between elegant dinner parties in Baltimore and a visit to the Peabody Institute, Tchaikovsky spent a restless night trying to conjure up that ethereal music. Or not. We can dream.
A first-night flop
Everybody's a critic. And the house was full of 'em when "The Nutcracker" had its first performance at the Mariinsky Theatre 122 years ago this week. The dress rehearsal had gone fine, with no less than the czar in attendance. "His majesty was delighted, summoning me to his box and heaping compliments on me," Tchaikovsky reported.
But the premiere was a different story. The audience didn't like the story, which was still German, even if it had been given a French accent. And they didn't like seeing a lot of kids dancing onstage. Oh, and the ballerina portraying the Sugar-Plum Fairy didn't help any; Tchaikovsky's brother, Modeste, called her "downright ugly."
The press reviews were unkind at best. One critic said there was "no creativity whatsoever" in the ballet.
Made for America
We take this ballet so much for granted these days that we may think the whole world has always been nuts for "Nutcracker." Not so. It wasn't even done all that much in Tchaikovsky's homeland until well into the 20th century.
The first complete U.S. performance wasn't until 1944, given on Christmas Eve by the San Francisco Ballet, choreographed by the company's artistic director, Willam Christensen.
"He was my mentor," says Dianna Cuatto, artistic director of Ballet Theatre of Maryland. "He told me he had no idea that 'The Nutcracker' would take off like this in this country."
In 1954, George Balanchine created a version of the work for the New York City Ballet, which, like the San Francisco company, made it an annual presentation. And that helped turn a Russian work into an American staple.
"It speaks to a lot of American values," Cuatto says, "the family values that we celebrate at Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanza. I think it was meant to take hold in America. A lot of people see it every year and they're bringing their grandchildren. They can't imagine Christmas without 'Nutcracker.'"
New for BSA/BSO this year
The BSA/BSO production welcomes a new conductor, Robert Bernhardt, this year.
"I conducted my first 'Nutcracker' in the mid-1980s and I can state emphatically that I still adore it," Bernhardt says. "For me, it never becomes cloying. Tchaikovsky was in a very troubled part of his life when he wrote it, yet it almost entirely optimistic and hopeful. It's refreshingly childlike."
At the BSA, students have been sewing away in the costume shop for months under the guidance of resident costumer Norah Worthington, refurbishing existing outfits and fashioning new ones — 230 costumes in all. Keep an eye out for the dancers in the endearing Waltz of the Snowflakes that closes Act 1.
"There are brand new snowflake costumes this year," Worthington says. "Every single flake [sewn onto the costumes] is unique. The students looked at amplifications of snowflakes to be inspired."
And instead of synthesized voices for the Waltz of the Snowflakes — Tchaikovsky's use of a wordless chorus for that passage is one of his most inspired ideas — a choral group from the school will perform in the production for the first time.
(The Moscow Ballet performances also feature a choral group, the American Kodaly Children's Chorus from the Bryn Mawr School.)
The girl at the heart of ballet — usually named Clara — travels with her Nutcracker-turned-Prince to the Kingdom of Sweets, where they are entertained by diverting dances representing various musical styles. That's where the ballet ends, in the original version.
The BSA production, with choreography by Barry Hughson, has Clara realizing at the end that she has been dreaming (this is now almost a standard interpretation at many companies).
In the Moscow Ballet's production, billed as the "Great Russian Nutcracker," the girl, named Masha, also wakes from a dream, but what a dream. Instead of the Land of Sweets in Act 2, Masha and the Prince alight in the Land of Peace and Harmony, welcomed by the Dove of Peace. There, dances symbolize various nations, all managing to live together.
The more traditional Ballet Theatre of Maryland production suggests that the Christmas Eve festivity is "Clara's coming-of-age party," Cuatto says, "and lets you see a vision of who she can become. But it also keeps the wonder of the child."
Cuatto instructed her troupe to imagine "soulful dancing of dreams coming true. That's what keeps people coming back to 'Nutcracker,'" she says. "It gives us hope no matter what our age or our place in the culture. We all want to believe that dreams can come true."