Above: a still from the original version of Balanchine’s show (photo from the New York Public Library
Being as I was once a boy, nothing about Christmas bored me less than watching a bunch of girls get excited when the Nutcracker came on television. Its taken my deep appreciation of New York — and some knowledge of George Balanchine — to finally understand its long lasting appeal.
Leon Barzin founded the New York City Ballet (then the Ballet Society) in 1933 with Balanchine as head choreographer; Balanchine pretty much is the New York City Ballet, the spirit of it anyway. A Russian born dancer with the Ballet Russes, Balanchine had performed a version of the Nutcracker in Russia. However it was never seriously considered any kind of ‘holiday classic’ until he revised the ballet himself in 1954. Balletmet has a breakdown of his specific changes, although the key to his particular version? Having actual children in the lead roles — cast in ’54 from the School of American Ballet — their steps considerably revised.
What had been a rather obscure and even antiquated fairy tale of mice and wooden men, energized by the music of Tchaikovsky, now became a mainstream hit with audiences. However, despite being Christmas themed, its first performance was on February 2, 1954. According to Edward Bigelow , who was assistant manager with the ballet in 1954, “In those days we generally shared the City Center with New York City Opera. They had first call on when they wanted to perform, and we inherited the slow period around Christmastime, when you could typically hear echoes in the theater.” The Nutcracker essentially became a holiday classic because of scheduling issue!
The New York Ballet has performed the Nutcracker every year since 1954, and two televised versions during the holidays spread the word outside of the city. There was even a crappy Macauley Culkin film, however I would avoid that. The live version currently runs through the end of the month.
Although there are several variations now to the ballet, most people are familiar with the Balanchine one, to the extent that it’s often referred to as Balanchine’s Nutcracker.