The History of the Nutcracker Ballet

Postcard of ballerina Olga Preobrajenskaya as the Sugarplum Fairy with Nikolai Legat as Prince Coqueluche in the Imperial Ballet's original production of the Nutcracker.


One of our family holiday traditions when I was a child was to attend the Nutcracker Ballet. I first took my daughter to see the Nutcracker when she was three years old. Perhaps it was a bit early, but at the time she was taking a dance class and loved Angelina Ballerina, and sure enough, she was entralled from the moment the curtain opened. So began our annual tradition of attending the Nutcracker each Christmas season.

My daughter is now nine and dance is still her favorite activity. After attending a performance of the Nutcracker last week, she started asking questions about its history, so we decided to do a little research. The Nutcracker Ballet was first performed at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia on December 17, 1782. I am lucky to have attended both an opera and a ballet at the Mariinsky Theatre, so I dug through some old boxes and was able to find a ticket and a picture to share with her. (Historical Note: The Mariinsky Theatre became the property of the state in 1917. In 1920 it began to be called the State Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet, and in 1935 it was renamed after Sergei Mironovich Kirov. On January 16, 1992, the theatre’s historic name was restored and it became the Mariinsky Theatre once again.)


The Mariinsky Theatre c. 1996


Ticket from the Mariinsky Theatre c. 1987 (known as the Kirov at that time)


The Nutcracker Ballet was based on Alexandre Dumas’s adaptation of E.T.A. Hoffman’s book, The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. The dancing was choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov with the music composed by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. The first production of the Nutcracker received bad reviews from critics and was considered a failure. The ballet was performed in Western Europe in the 1930s and came to America by 1940, but it did not become popular until the 1950s when choreographer George Balanchine made a few changes in his 1954 production for the New York City Ballet, establishing it as a holiday tradition and creating the version we still watch today.

Tchaikovsky died in November of 1893, less than a year after the first performance of the Nutcracker, never knowing how successful and well-known his music would become. The score from the Nutcracker has become one of Tchaikovsky’s most famous compositions and several of the melodies can be heard on television and in film. Can you name a movie or commercial featuring music from the Nutcracker? What are your holiday traditions?




This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

22 Responses to The History of the Nutcracker Ballet

  1. Very interesting story, Ally. There are so many movies hubby and I will be watching, and I’ll say ‘that’s from the nutcracker.’ My favorite tradition when my kids were little was to take out Mary and Joseph from our creche on the first Sunday of Advent, and we would place them in a prominent spot in the dining room, and then every night during Advent, we would light the advent candle, and move them a little bit further towards the stable, where they would arrive Christmas Eve. Fun–but the kids are too old for that now.

    • Alysia says:

      What a great tradition, Callie. Unfortunately, due to the uncontrolled tails of our large dogs, we have a very limited number of surfaces on which it is safe to place our holiday decorations. Thanks for stopping by!

  2. Angelyn says:

    Great post! Our tradition is to watch the 1977 ABT production with Kirkland and Baryshnikov that I have on DVD. This performance is unequalled, IMHO.

    • Alysia says:

      I agree. Baryshnikov has no equal. I do like the Balanchine movie version as well, but more for the scenery and props than the dancing.

  3. Kirsten says:

    One of my absolute favorite memories of Christmas was the first time I got to see the Nutcracker Ballet. I begged my parents for a nutcracker after that, and I don’t know how they did it on short notice, but they found one. I still put “him” out every year.
    Thank you for sharing the history!

    • Alysia says:

      Thanks for stopping by, Kirsten. I’m glad you enjoyed the history. My daughter also had to have a nutcracker after her first time watching the ballet. I hope she’ll still cherish it as she grows older.

  4. This was a terrific blog. I learned a lot and enjoyed the pics and history. I too have memories of taking my daughter to see this.. and the music is lovely.

  5. Alysia says:

    I’m so glad you liked it, Clancy. Thanks for stopping by. I’ve been listening to the music all month while I write.

  6. Enjoyed your post Ally! Years ago, when my kids were small, my sister and I took them to a production of The Nutcracker Ballet! It was the first time I’d seen it and I loved it. Would definitely enjoy doing it again.

    Great that you and your daughter have such a wonderful tradition to share!

    • Alysia says:

      Thanks for stopping by, Christine. One of my boys had to go with us last year due to circumstances that were beyond his control. I think he liked it, but he’ll never admit it.

  7. Oh, yes! We love the Nutcracker! My younger daughter danced in it for over 5 years (advancing through the ranks) so I’ve seen so many performances of it, I believe I have it memorized. 🙂

    Thanks for sharing the history of this ballet. Now, I want to go put in my cd.

  8. Calisa Rhose says:

    Very interesting history. Kudos to your daughter for her interest at such a young age. How cool that you’ve actually been there!

  9. Nancy LaPonzina says:

    Ahhh … the Nutcracker music is such a collection of wonderful melodies, (personal fav are the mushrooms) and the ballet costuming is always stunning. This year our North Carolina Ballet is tweaking its production and it will be accompanied by a live orchestra.
    Great blog!

    • Alysia says:

      This year we attended a production at my daughter’s dance studio. It was a lovely performance, but no live orchestra. I hope you have a wonderful time, Nancy. Thanks for stopping by.

  10. Ella Quinn says:

    What a wonderful post. My son went to the Nutcracker every year with his class, both in Fayetteville, NC and Stuttgart, Germany. He was really thrilled when he saw his first German nutcracker at the Christmas Market in Stuttgart.

    • Alysia says:

      I would love to see the Nutcracker in Germany, especially since that’s where the story originated. I just looked up the Christmas Market in Stuttgart and I’ve added it to the list of places I want to visit. It looks fabulous. Thanks for stopping by, Ella.

  11. Jerrica says:

    Ooh! I love The Nutcracker! And we’re so fortunate to live in NYC 🙂 My daughter’s still a little young for Lincoln Center (turns 2 on Christmas Day) but we plan to start the tradition next year 🙂

    Great post!

    • Alysia says:

      You’re going to have so much fun next year. I searched for a simple copy of the book and read it to my daughter several times before we went so she’d be familiar with the story, but she was so mesmerized by the music and dancing I don’t think it mattered. Thanks for stopping by, Jerrica!

  12. Sharla Rae says:

    I love everything Christmas. Thanks so much for sharing this! My husband I have Russia as one of our major places to visit so I hope we can visit this theater.

  13. Ally says:

    You’re very welcome. Thanks for stopping by, Sharla. You should definitely visit St. Petersburg — I promise you won’t be disappointed. The inside of Mariinsky Theatre is gorgeous, but unfortunately none of those pictures came out well enough to share.
    P.S. I love Writers in the Storm!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *