The Nutcracker (Balanchine)

Choreographer: George Balanchine

Music: Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Costumes and Set Design: Peter Farmer

Lighting: Mary Jo Dondlinger (1997, 1998); Barbara E. Thomspon (1999-2001)

World Premiere: New York City Ballet, February 2, 1954

PBT Performance Date: December 1997-2001


Program Notes (1997)
By Carol Meeder, former Director of Arts Education                  

The Nutcracker ballet was created at a time in Russia when a Czar and Czarina reigned over an imperial court with all the majesty a monarchy implied.  This was the late 1800's in St. Petersburg when the famous Imperial St. Petersburg Theatrical School and the Maryinsky Theater were under the patronage of the royal family.  Respect for art and music was a highly regarded czarist tradition.  

Programs of music, opera and ballet were regularly created and performed for the entertainment of the czar and it was the notion of the Intendant of the Imperial Theaters, I. A. Vsevoloiski to create a ballet based on E.T.A. Hoffmann's story The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.   E.T.A. Hoffmann was a German writer who was extremely popular in Russia and his story was widely known.   Translating the story into a ballet however, was the job of  Marius Petipa, the maîtres de ballet at the Imperial School.  Petipa would take the story of The Nutcracker and lay out the requisite frame on which the music and choreography would hang.  Marseilles born Petipa did not read German and he was not familiar with the dark Hoffmann tale, consequently it was the lighter French Dumas père fairy tale, Casse-Noisette that served as the basis for the plot in his framework.

The production of The Nutcracker ballet was dictated by the customs and traditions of the time and the next step was to have the actions and emotions described in Petipa's outline translated into a musical score.  In this case the composer would be Peter I. Tchaikovsky (Tchaikovsky loved the Hoffmann story).  Composers of the time were not always agreeable to write music for the ballet as they had to adhere to the designs of and requirements of someone else. Tchaikovsky not only wrote a piece that elevated the art of music for dance, but a piece that stood alone as a masterpiece as well. The specificity with which Petipa outlined his musical request is illustrated by the following example from The Life and Letters of Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky by Modeste Tchaikovsky.

The music then went back to the maîtres de ballet to be choreographed. This would have been Marius Petipa, but he fell ill and it was his assistant, Lev Ivanov who completed the choreography and subsequently received credit for the original staging of The Nutcracker. The ballet, according to tradition, would center on a principal character to be danced by the prima ballerina.  The prima ballerina would have a pas de deux with variations and coda and there would be at least one pas d'action for the dancer to display her miming abilities.  There would also be variations for the premier danseur and dances for the corps de ballet  (giving the premier danseur time to change costume!).  A sampling of pas de caractères were included to give soloists an opportunity to display their abilities and lastly there was a grand march that brought a mass of dancers on stage to provide a backdrop for the ballerina to display her technique.   

The scenery and costumes would all be designed within the dictates of tradition as well as lavishly executed and no expense spared.   And so The Nutcracker premiered at the Maryinsky Theatre, St. Petersburg December 5, 1892.

In 1913 a nine year old boy by the name of Georgi Balanchivadze was accepted into the ballet section of the Imperial Theatre School in St. Petersburg.  The Nutcracker was now regularly being performed at the Maryinsky Theater and the boy danced this and other  ballets using students of the school, learning of the masters, Tchaikovsky and Petipa included.  This was a court school and the students lived as dependents of the czar, room and board at the expense of the royal treasury.  Under the patronage of the czar the arts were cloistered and as the masters passed down the traditions of their craft, the individual talents of one generation were added and preserved by the next. The preparation of the students was demanding, but the result was glorious.

In 1917 the era of Imperial Russia came to an end with the Bolshevik revolution. The school was closed for a time and the students turned out to fend for themselves.  When the school reopened as The State Academic Theatre for Opera and Ballet, the conditions for the students were vastly different. The boy, Georgi Balanchivadze, was one who returned to the school, he recalled  "...we still took part in performances, but we were no longer taken to the theater by carriage; they drove us in long sledges.  They got rid of them later, too.  But the worst part, of course was being hungry."  The tradition of the ballet, as it was known in St. Petersburg, was uncertain at best.

The Nutcracker ballet would survive the turmoil of the time and through the years in Russia, as well as around the world, the ballet would be adapted, re-choreographed, and performed.  The boy too, survived and in 1924 he left Russia to pursue his destiny as a choreographer.   He would become known as George Balanchine, one of the most innovative and creative choreographers of our time.    

In 1948 Mr. Balanchine, along with Lincoln Kirsten, founded the New York City Ballet. A few years later, Mr. Balanchine, as ballet master of New York City Ballet, took on the project of choreographing The Nutcracker.  This ballet was going to be an extravaganza and indeed it was the costliest work, to that time, to be staged by New York City Ballet. (Did Mr. Balanchine's upbringing in St. Petersburg have anything to do with the scale of this particular production?)  And so on February 2, 1954 The Nutcracker premiered at New York City Center.

Also with the New York City Ballet at the time of The Nutcracker premier was a young dancer named Patricia Wilde. Miss Wilde had worked extensively with Mr. Balanchine at Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and with a small group he formed to perform in Mexico City.  When this mentor and friend called on her, asking her to come dance with his fledgling company, she agreed to join New York City Ballet as a principal dancer.    She was to become one of New York City Ballet's best known principal dancers, dancing the creations of Mr. Balanchine, many of which were designed for her.  Miss Wilde brought an unparalleled level of speed and virtuosity, Mr. Balanchine brought masterful choreography and for fifteen years they would collaborate to create world renowned ballet.  

Miss Wilde, as the artistic director of the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre from 1982-1997, secured Balanchine's The Nutcracker for PBT, one of only four companies licensed to perform his version.  The choreography of Balanchine's The Nutcracker must be strictly adhered to, assuring the integrity of the production and at PBT the caliber of dance has been secured under the tutelage of Miss Wilde.  So as you watch the curtain slowly rise at the Benedum you will be experiencing a ballet production with a past deeply rooted in the rich artistry and talents of St. Petersburg, a classic ballet, preserved and passed to us. 

In its history Pittsburgh Ballet theatre has presented several productions of The Nutcracker.  The choreography has always been Balanchine, but the production elements have changed.  In 1990 English artist and designer Peter Farmer was commissioned by PBT to create the scenery and costume for this production of The Nutcracker.  Patricia Wilde, Janet Groom Campbell (PBT’s Costumier) and Robert Neu (PBT’s Production Manager at the time) met with Mr. Farmer to convey their ideas for scenery, costumes, and ambiance of the production.  Five months later the first “Snowflake” rendering arrived at PBT and the work began.  A myriad of details must be considered for each costume and piece of scenery before a final result is achieved.  For each costume Mr. Farmer had to consider the time period, personality of the character, mood of the action or scene when the costume is to be worn not to mention the movement of the dancer, weight of the costume, and necessity for quick changes.  Color theory was another consideration.  Noticing the party scene in Act I you will see that both Mary and Frau Stahlbaum are dressed in light colors which sets them apart from the other women and girls who are dressed in similar styles but darker colors.  Shopping for the fabrics took weeks in Pittsburgh as well as Maryland, New York, and London.  It took nine months and twelve seamstresses to make the 210 costumes for this production of The Nutcracker.