By Danielle Pierce-Master, MA Dance / Edited by Samantha Bellerose, B.Ed, Dip.Dance(Performing Arts)
Thinking about Christmas in the dance world means that the season of The Nutcracker Ballet is upon us. The Nutcracker Ballet is the lifeblood of many ballet companies, with revenues from the holiday hit sustaining the company’s finances for the rest of the year. For audiences, it is a seasonal tradition of magic, sugarplums, and Tchaikovsky’s timeless music.
The Nutcracker Ballet is based on a story by E.T.A Hoffman, The Nutcracker and the Mouse King as well as Alexandre Dumas’ adaptation, The Tale of The Nutcracker. It is a well-loved holiday ballet that gets produced in a variety of versions all over the US and the World.
From the professional stage at Lincoln Center in New York City to a small-town ballet school production, it would be a monumental task to determine just how many versions of The Nutcracker Ballet are performed each November and December. I’ve amassed a list of some of the major companies and their different productions, as Ballet companies large and small put their stamp on the holiday classic.
The Best Versions of the Nutcracker Ballet:
George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker ® is considered the version of The Nutcracker Ballet that made the ballet a holiday tradition. The production is well-known and beloved and can be found around the US: Alabama Ballet, New York City Ballet, Miami City Ballet, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Oregon Ballet Theater, and at Pennsylvania Ballet.
The companies above are all licensed by the George Balanchine Trust to perform the ballet. George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker ® was recorded as a movie by New York City Ballet in 1993.
Prior to their adoption of Balanchine’s production, Pacific Northwest Ballet performed a production that was choreographed by Kent Stowell, with sets and costumes famously designed by Maurice Sendak, author of Where the Wild Things Are. While the production has been retired, a 1986 recorded version is available on DVD and for purchase to stream.
American Ballet Theater
American Ballet Theater’s first production of The Nutcracker Ballet was in 1977, choreographed by Mikhail Baryshnikov. While it is not the version that the company currently performs, you can watch Baryshnikov himself dance in it, along with Gelsey Kirkland.
ABT premiered their current production of The Nutcracker Ballet, choreographed by Alexei Ratmansky at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2010. I have a funny story about this one! I got my Grandma tickets to this production as a Christmas gift, and my father was set to drive her and I from New Jersey to Brooklyn for the performance. One of my former tap students was playing the Prince, I hadn’t seen a professional Nutcracker in a long time, and I was excited to give my Grandma an ‘experience gift.’ There happened to be a massive blizzard, and while we safely got to see the performance (which was magical), after dropping me off in Manhattan, my dad and Grandma nearly spun out on the George Washington Bridge and once they got closer to home had to call my uncles to help dig them out! It certainly was an experience for the record books! I wonder if that’s why ABT is currently only performing its Nutcracker in Costa Mesa, California, where there is no snow except on stage?
Most New York ballet goers flock to New York City Ballet’s grand spectacle, but for the youngest audience members, there are other options. Since The Nutcracker is often a young child’s first foray into watching ballet live, I do recommend smaller productions first. Pre-pandemic, New York Theater Ballet offered a one-hour production that was perfect when I took my (at the time) three-year-old.
The Joffrey Ballet performs Christopher Wheeldon’s production, which moves the setting to 1893 Chicago, paying tribute to the World’s Fair that took place in the Windy City that year. This production finds Uncle Drosselmeir replaced by “The Great Impresario” and the typical mice of act one replaced with full-on city rats. Here’s a New York Times review from the premiere in 2016.
Ballet Austin also has a production of The Nutcracker as choreographed by Stephen Mills. The production is performed to Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s score and is an annual holiday tradition.
Boston Ballet performs a production choreographed by artistic director Mikko Nissinen. Nissinen choreographed Boston’s version in 2004 and revised it, to critical acclaim, in 2012. “The illusion we create is intended to deepen your understanding of reality,” Nissinen said.
San Francisco Ballet was actually the home of the first full-length production of The Nutcracker in 1944 and has had four different productions in the company’s history. The one they currently perform premiered in 2004, was choreographed by Helgi Tomasson, and is set in 1915 San Francisco.
Salt Lake City
Ballet West performs William Christensen’s choreography, which was actually the first full-length Nutcracker to be performed in the US (at San Francisco Ballet). You can read some interesting tidbits about it here.
The Atlanta Ballet premiered Yuri Possokhov’s Nutcracker at the Kennedy Center in 2019.
The Washington Post reported: “You know it’s not your typical, fancy-schmancy “Nutcracker” Christmas party when the maid drunkenly hurtles by on the cocktail cart, helped along by a dashing Herr Drosselmeier who’s a cross between a steampunk bad boy and the craziest, coolest uncle ever.”
Charlotte Ballet performs The Nutcracker at Belk Theater, with choreography by Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux, the company’s former artistic director. They offer a wonderful guide to families who may be attending the ballet for the first time.
Have Nut, Will Travel
If you don’t have a local ballet company putting on a production, the Moscow Ballet’s Great Russian Nutcracker is a touring production that makes its way around the US. Interesting about this one is that the Moscow Ballet collaborates with ballet schools located in each of its markets, using a cast of local children to perform with the company.
Unlike many of the other productions featured here, The Australian Ballet’s Nutcracker – The Story of Clara deviates from the Hoffman/Dumas stories significantly. Graham Murphy’s Clara is a refugee ballerina who flees from the Russian Revolution. She joins a ballet company and tours, settling in Australia and finding herself in a dance-loving community there.
TThe Royal Ballet performs Peter Wright’s choreography at the Royal Opera House in London. The production stays true to the classic Russian original and show classes the company with many solo and ensemble roles.
The English National Ballet performs Wayne Eagling’s production at the London Coliseum. The ballet is set in a wintery Edwardian London to Tchaikovsky’s score.
The National Ballet of Canada performs James Kudelka’s production, which the company premiered in 1995.
Galina Yordanova & Nina Menon are the choreographers of the production at Royal Winnipeg Ballet, which is set in Canada in 1913.
Les Grands Ballets Canadiens‘ production of The Nutcracker Ballet is choreographed by Fernand Nault and follows the Hoffman plot closely.
The Nutcracker Beyond Ballet
While The Nutcracker is performed primarily as a classical ballet, other genres of dance have created their own adaptations. They are not all currently in production but some clips are available online.
The Harlem Nutcracker
Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn, and David Berger interpreted Tchaikovsky’s work to create the score for The Harlem Nutcracker, which was choreographed by Donald Byrd for his Spectrum Dance Theater. The plot varies quite a bit from the Hoffman version, with Clara being a recently widowed grandmother who thinks of Christmases gone by. The Harlem Nutcracker is available as a picture book as well.
The Ellington/Strayhorn/Berger score was also used by tap phenom Michelle Dorrance for her 2019 Tap production, which was part of a mixed-repertory program. I was able to see this version during the run at the Joyce Theater and thoroughly enjoyed it. Besides telling the Nutcracker story through tap dance, Dorrance stretched audiences’ ideas of the typical production, having Clara played by a man and the Nutcracker by a woman. I do hope that it is brought back in a post-pandemic world.
Hip Hop Nutcracker
The Joyce Theater also facilitated a Facebook Live Panel, with contributions from four choreographers who have recently created new Adaptations of The Nutcracker, including Byrd and Dorrance as well as Jennifer Weber, choreographer of the Hip Hop Nutcracker. The Hip Hop Nutcracker typically tours annually and is actually available to watch online.
The Hard Nut
Modern Dance Choreographer Mark Morris also has an interpretation of The Nutcracker, The Hard Nut. Morris kept the Tchaikovsky score and added his quirky movement vocabulary.
Hot Chocolate Nutcracker
Debbie Allen’s Hot Chocolate Nutcracker is produced most years featuring students of Los Angeles’ Debbie Allen Dance Academy. Netflix produced a behind-the-scenes documentary tracing the journey of the show from auditions to stage. Allen’s production utilizes a range of dance styles including hip hop and ariel dance.
The Nutcracker in Film
The Nutcracker Ballet has also had its fair share of film adaptations. The most recent was 2018’s The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, featuring ABT’s Misty Copeland. Others have included The Carebears Nutcracker and Barbie in The Nutcracker.