Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky never quite got the whole self-assurance thing.
The composer typically disparaged his own music at one point or another, as he did in 1892, after finishing a ballet that he called "infinitely poorer than The Sleeping Beauty," which he had written a couple of years earlier.
"I have no doubt about it," he wrote a friend. To another, he just said: "This old chap's getting worn out."
What Tchaikovsky didn't know was that he had composed what would become the most widely beloved and performed of all ballets - The Nutcracker.
This "indestructibly popular Christmas confection," as Tchaikovsky biographer Anthony Holden describes it, is everywhere at this time of year, performed by professional and amateur companies alike with equal determination.
Local options range from the touring Moscow Ballet to the Baltimore School for the Arts, with many an option in between.
All of this annual Nutcracker madness would have floored Tchaikovsky. At least he did live to see public enthusiasm for some of the music from the piece. The orchestral suite he premiered in March 1892, nine months before the ballet, was an instant hit. And why not? That suite contains many of the surefire, wonderfully colorful items from the score. (So well-known and ingrained is The Nutcracker Suite that some people think that's the title of the ballet.)
Oddly enough, this well-received musical foretaste did not manage to guarantee a great opening night when the full choreographed production was unveiled Dec. 18, 1892, at the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, Russia, on a double bill with the premiere of Tchaikovsky's opera Iolanta.
The composer got his hopes up when he learned that the czar would attend. "His Majesty was delighted, inviting me to his box and showering me with compliments," Tchaikovsky wrote afterward. "Both the opera and the ballet were superbly staged, the ballet almost too magnificently."
Later, though, he admitted that "the success was not absolute. Apparently the opera gives pleasure, but the ballet not really. And as a matter of fact, in spite of all the sumptuousness, it did turn out rather boring."
Today, of course, it's the ballet that gives all the pleasure and the opera that gets dismissed as boring. (Those who caught the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's concert version of Iolanta, led by then-music director Yuri Temirkanov in 2000, know well how unjustified that dismissal is.)
Actually, it turned out that achieving fame was a tough nut for Tchaikovsky's charming ballet to crack.
He died less than a year after the lackluster premiere, so he didn't see the work slowly catch on in his homeland. It was eventually recognized and embraced as what Akiva Talim, producer of Moscow Ballet's touring Nutcracker, calls "a seminal work of Russian culture."
A complete Nutcracker wasn't performed in the U.S. until the 1940s in San Francisco, but became an annual tradition there, as did a New York City Ballet production unveiled a decade later by legendary choreographer George Balanchine.
Over the years, the piece has been reinterpreted by various choreographers, but, at heart, the story is always the same. A young girl, Clara, experiences a fantastic adventure after receiving a toy nutcracker one Christmas Eve from an intriguing character named Drosselmeyer. The nutcracker turns into a prince, who leads the girl into an enchanted kingdom of sweets.
This fairy tale has unending appeal to children, and the ballet, with its mix of child and adult characters, offers an opportunity for young dancers to get into the act. Some productions, such as the one from the Baltimore County Youth Ballet, marketed as "by kids for kids," is geared to young audiences and danced by a troupe whose members range from age 6 to 18.
A likewise youthful emphasis fuels the Baltimore School for the Arts presentation of Nutcracker, which "has a role for dancers of every level," says Norma Pera, head of the school's dance department.
The production is "a vehicle to improve the students' technique in classical ballet and help them grow as artists," says Barry Hughson, executive director of the Atlanta Ballet, who choreographed the School for the Arts production. "It's a very traditional telling of the story by beautiful young students."
In 1976, celebrated dancer/choreographer Mikhail Baryshnikov took The Nutcracker in a bold direction by eschewing child dancers. His practically revolutionary version meant that all the dancing would be on a fully professional level, and that there would be room to explore more romantic and somewhat more psychologically pointed notions for the characters of the girl and the prince.
The Moscow Ballet staging employs children (auditioned locally earlier this year) with its troupe of professionals, but there are a few breaks from tradition, especially visual. Valentin Fedorov's scenic designs take a cue from French painter Henri Rousseau.
"His paintings created a world where animals exist in harmony with people," says the ballet's Talim. "Instead of a standard ballroom scene, for example, Fedorov's sets reveal exotic vegetation that is very colorful and fresh, radically different from any other production."
Costuming, too, will make a fresh statement, including a Mouse King who sports 35-foot wings. "A traditional production looks like George Washington's time," Talim says. "This production makes the [Christmas Eve] party scene very contemporary, with very slick, modern and attractive costumes."
Instead of the usual candy-land in Act 2 for Clara (her name is changed to Masha here), choreographer Anatoly Emelianov has created what he calls the "Land of Peace and Enchantment," a place without war or suffering. And a place where, Talim says, "animals come to life - lions, bears, dragons, unicorns - and they all play musical instruments."
This peaceable kingdom will still provide a setting for all the favorite dance sequences to unfold; the music has not undergone any tampering. And the spirit of the original Nutcracker is likely to shine through, as it invariably does whenever, wherever and however this ballet of innocence, charms and dreams takes the stage.
Here's a list of The Nutcracker performances in the Baltimore and Washington areas:
The Arabesque Dance Company :
When: 1 p.m. and 3:15 p.m. Dec. 20 and 2 p.m. Dec. 21
Cost: $14 orchestra and $12 balcony
Where: Jim Rouse Theatre at Wilde Lake High School, 5460 Trumpeter Road, Columbia
Contact: Call 410-381-0017 or go to livetodance .com
Ballet Theatre of Maryland :
When: 7 p.m. Saturday, 1 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. Sunday, 1 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. Dec. 21
Cost: $43 for adults, $36 for seniors, $23 for students, $18 for children 10 and younger
Where: Maryland Hall Main Stage, Annapolis
Contact: Call 410-280-5640 or go to balletmary land.org
When: 6:30 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday
Cost: $25 for adults and $15 for children younger than 12
Where: Goucher College Kraushaar Auditorium, 1021 Dulaney Valley Road, Towson
Contact: Call 410-667-7974 or go to baltimore ballet.com
Baltimore County Youth Ballet:
When: 7:30 p.m. Dec. 20 and 3 p.m. Dec. 21; special matinees Dec. 19 for school groups
Cost: $15, reserved seating
Where: New Town High School, 4931 New Town Boulevard, Owings Mills
Contact: Call the Sudbrook Arts Centre at 410-887-1244
Baltimore School for the Arts:
When: 3 p.m. tomorrow, Saturday and Sunday
Cost: $15 for adults and $10 for students
Where: Baltimore School for the Arts, Schaefer Ballroom, 712 Cathedral St.
Contact: Call 410-624-2103 or go to bsfa.org
Carroll County Dance Center:
When: 7 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday
Cost: $20 for adults, $15 for children 12 and younger and seniors
Where: The Gordon Center for Performing Arts, 3506 Gwynnbrook Ave., Owings Mills
Contact: Call 410-795-3255 or go to carrollcounty dancecenter.com
Harford Ballet Company:
When: 1 p.m. and 6 p.m. Dec. 20 and 1 p.m. Dec. 21
Cost: $17 in advance, $20 at the door
Where: Aberdeen High School Auditorium, 251 Paradise Road, Aberdeen
Contact: Call 410-877-0777 or go to harfordballet company.org
When: 7:30 today, 1:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. tomorrow, Saturday and Sunday
Where: The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F St. N.W., Washington
Contact: Call 202-467-4600 or go to kennedy-cen ter.org
Kirov Ballet (film):
When: Noon on Saturday
Where: Charles Theatre, 1711 N. Charles St.
Contact: Call 410-727-3456 or go to thecharles.com
Moscow Ballet :
When: 7:30 p.m. Dec. 19, 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Dec. 20 and 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. Dec. 21
Where: Lyric Opera House, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave.
Contact: Call 410-547-7328 or go to nutcracker.com
The Washington Ballet:
When: 7 p.m. today and tomorrow, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Saturday, 1 p.m. Sunday, 7 p.m. Dec. 16-19, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Dec. 20, 1 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. Dec. 21, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Dec. 23, 1 p.m. Dec. 24, 7 p.m. Dec. 26, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Dec. 27, 1 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. Dec. 28
Where: The Warner Theatre, 513 13th St. N.W., Washington
Contact: Call 202-362-3606 or go to warnertheatre .com
Schedules subject to change. Some shows may be sold out.