Saturday, December 9, 2017

The Nutcracker—From Russian Flop to American Ballet Cash Cow

The Christmas party with children of the ensemble of the Illinois Youth Dance Theatre in one of their annual Lake Zurich performances.

Note:  Last night my wife Kathy Brady-Murfin and I took in a performance of The Nutcracker by the Illinois Youth Dance Theatre at the Lake Zurich Performing Arts Center, the large and fully professionally appointed theater at Lake Zurich High School—a tantalizing reminder of the enrichments available to wealthy school districts in Illinois.  A large ensemble takes full advantage of the wide, deep stage with ample flyways for scenery, and professional lighting.  Sets and costumes are lavish.  The Illinois Youth Dance Theatre describes itself as “made up of pre-professional junior and senior company members, who range in age from 3-18.  Our dancers all train at Illinois Dance Conservatory in Wauconda under the direction of Alyce Keaggy Brinkmann and Sasha Kozadayev, both of whom have had successful careers in professional ballet, working and performing both nationally, and internationally.”  Principle male roles are danced by young professionals recruited from companies around the U.S. Among the dozens of annual dance school productions that can be found all over the Chicago suburbs—two in McHenry County alone—this may be the most elaborate and ambitious. This was our second time viewing this production. We first attended a few years ago because Kathy had students from her Religious Education program at St. Frances de Sales in Lake Zurich in the ensemble.  We enjoyed ourselves enough to return this year of our own free will.  In honor of our night out, I am recycling a post from last year that went up on the anniversary of the first public performance in St. Petersburg in 1892.
Look, I’m a card carrying hairy chested, knuckle dragging American Dude.  I bow to no one in the testosterone or crass vulgarity required for admission to the Club.  Yet in my 67 years I have seen The Nutcracker ballet three times.  First I was dragged to it for my edification and in an attempt to impose a veneer of civilization by the authorities at Niles West High School.  As I recall they took us by school bus to the Loop to see a week-day matinee in an auditorium half filled with other disgruntled adolescents.  But attendance for the second and third times, nearly 40 years apart was entirely voluntary.  That may be an indication of how ubiquitous The Nutcracker has become—as much a part of the American holiday scene now as productions of The Christmas Carol and annual TV screenings of animated specials, It’s a Wonderful Life, and A Christmas Story.

Sergei Legat as Nutcracker, Stanislava Stanislavovna Belinskaya as Clara in an early 1890 Russian production.
But despite the fame and public adulation of the ballet’s composer, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, the two act ballet was not a hit with persnickety Russian critics or the audience when it premiered on December 18, 1892 at the Mariinsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg as the second half of a double-bill with his new opera Iolanta.  It subsequently languished out of the repertoire and unperformed in the West until the mid-1920’s.  In fact it did not become a hardy staple until American ballet companies began making it a Holiday mainstay after World War II.
The only thing that saved the ballet from total obscurity was the 20 minute orchestral program that Tchaikovsky extracted from the score.  The Nutcracker Suite quickly became a symphonic orchestra concert favorite.  And it was the perfect lengthy to be recorded on 4 sides of a 78 rpm album bringing it directly into the homes.
Tchaikovsky, a 52 year old composer and conductor, was not only the idol of Russia, he was probably the most famous musician in the world, renowned for his lushly romantic and melodic compositions.  Unlike others Russian composer, he had established a solid reputation in the West by appearing as a guest conductor with the great orchestras in Berlin, Vienna, Paris, London, and New York.  His extensive body of work included Swan Lake—the foundational piece of modern ballet in 1876 and Sleeping Beauty in 1889.  In addition the prolific composer had written one of the great orchestral pieces of all time, The 1812 Overture, concertos, six Symphonies, a number of operas including Eugene Onegin, and the sprightly Serenade for Strings.
To follow up on the rousing success of Sleeping Beauty Ivan Vsevolozhsky, the impresario of St. Petersburg’s Imperial Theatres decided to double down on an unprecedented  Tchaikovsky extravaganza—he commissioned two new works, a full length opera and a two-act ballet to be presented as a double bill for the prestigious venue.  He gave the composer, who was traveling extensively on tour, less than a year to complete the pair of new pieces Tchaikovsky went all the way to New York City to conduct 25 days of concerts inaugurating the brand new Carnegie Hall and did much of the work on the ballet in France. 
The opera, Iolanta was based on a Danish play about a beautiful blind 15th Century princess with a libretto by the composer’s brother Modest Tchaikovsky.
Vsevolozhsky had very specific and demanding ideas for the ballet.  He wanted it based on the Prussian Romantic E. T. A. Hoffmann’s short 1816 novel The Nutcracker and the Mouse King but instead of the original text he wanted Alexandre Dumas French adapted story The Tale of the Nutcracker used as the basis of the libretto.   Even today Hoffmann is usually cited as he source in most programs and Dumas’s significant contributions slighted or omitted.
Illustration from E.T.A. Hoffmann's The Nutcracker and the Mouse King by Vladimir Makovsky published in 1882.
The producer gave detailed instructions for each number including tempo and the exact number of bars in each piece to best show off his ballet troupe.  This required significant departures from both Hoffmann and Dumas and completely eliminated a long section of the original explaining how the Prince was cursed and transformed into the Nutcracker.  Tchaikovsky chaffed under the restrictions, which required a very different process of creation than he was used to.
None-the-less with considerable trepidation Tchaikovsky delivered both new compositions and scores to Vsevolozhsky by August, 1892.  The company’s veteran choreographer Marius Petipa began designing the dances but fell ill and his assistant Lev Ivanov completed the work.  Just how much of the final product was the work of each man is not clear and the subject of major controversy to this day.  Petipa was credited alone in the original program, probably a courtesy to his position.
Under the baton of Riccardo Drigo, the cast included Antonietta Dell’Era as the Sugar Plum Fairy, Pavel Gerdt as Prince Coqueluche, Stanislava Belinskaya as Clara, Sergei Legat as the Nutcracker-Prince, and Timofey Stukolkin as Drosselmeyer.  Significantly the children in the first act, including Clara, were all danced by real children recruited from the Imperial School of Ballet.
On the night of the dual premiers Iolanta got a rousing and enthusiastic reception from an audience that included many bejeweled members of the Tsar’s court.  But after an intermission it was nearly midnight before the ballet began.  By that time the crowd may have been restive.  They did not embrace the ballet. 
Critics were split.  The criticism was not so much for Tchaikovsky’s score, but for the libretto for not being more faithful to Hoffman’s original—especially the absence of the Nutcracker origin story which they felt made the story unintelligible.  The choreography also came in for criticism—the famous battle scene with the Mouse King and his minions may not have been well staged.  Dell’Era as the Sugar Plum Fairy got four curtain calls but other dancers were harshly panned.  And there was considerable criticism of the use of children in the first act.
Tchaikovsky considered the ballet a failure.  And indeed it did not become regular part of the Russian repertoire.  It did not have a performance outside Russia until an abridged version of the ballet was performed at the Royal Opera House in Budapest in 1927.  In 1933 Soviet choreographer Vasili Vainonen mounted an influential new version that incorporated elements of Alexander Gorsky’s 1919 adaption  including that Clara’s adventures with the Nutcracker turns out to be a dream casting adults rather than children in the roles of Clara and the Nutcracker/ Prince,  introducing a love interest into the plot.  Most of these ideas would be incorporated in later celebrated productions.
Tchaikovsky died suddenly at the age of 53 less than a year after the original production, shortly after completing the Nutcracker Suite based on the ballet. Both the opera and the ballet were his last compositions in those genres.  
Despite the good notices at the premier, Iolanta did not become a major piece.  It is seldom performed today and has rarely been recorded in its entirety.

George Balachine's New York City Ballet production is not only an annual tradition since 1954 but it has been seen nationally on Public Television and in filmed performance screened in movie multiplexes across the country.  It has also inspired many of the local dance school productions  seen annually.
The Nutcracker began to really take off in popularity only in 1944 when the San Francisco Ballet produced it as holiday programming.  It was an enormous success and quickly became an annual tradition playing to sold-out houses.  George Balanchine mounted his production with the New York City Ballet in 1954 with similar results. By the early ’60 Ballet companies large and small had recognized The Nutcracker as a cash cow and began their own annual productions. 
Besides professional and semi-professional companies, ballet schools produced community productions taking full advantage of the children’s rolls for which the original production was criticized.  Major American ballet companies now generate around 40 percent of their annual ticket revenues from The Nutcracker and the school and amateur productions almost all of their ticket sales.

The Moscow Ballet's Great Russian Nutcracker
Top choreographers and dancers have presented their own productions, notably Rudolf Nureyev for the Royal Ballet, Yuri Grigorovich for the Bolshoi Ballet, Mikhail Baryshnikov for the American Ballet Theatre, and Peter Wright for the Royal Ballet.  
In Chicago the Joffrey Ballet presents an annual revival at the Auditorium Theater.  Here in McHenry County there are ballet school productions yearly at the Woodstock Opera House and Raue Center for the Performing Arts in Crystal Lake.  And you can be sure to find it somewhere on Public Television if you can’t make it to the theater.
Pretty damn good for a failure. 

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