“It wasn’t much of a success, and nobody performs it nowadays …” Deems Taylor said that about Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker ballet in Fantasia, released in 1940. He couldn’t say it today!
Even here in Fairbanks we have a live performance every Christmas, though regrettably I’ve never been able to attend it, as I no longer see well enough to drive in the dark. But I do watch the DVDs every year, and it is DVDs, plural, as I now have three versions of the ballet, in addition to the Disney version of the suite.
The oldest, as far as when it was filmed, is the Bolshoi Ballet version, with Yekaterina Maximova, Vladimir Vasiliev, Nadia Pavlova and Vyasheslav Gordeyev in the lead roles. The DVD has no copyright date, but since Yekaterina died at 70 two years ago, and performed with the Bolshoi only until 1980, it is reasonable to infer that the actual performance took place in the ‘60s or ‘70s. This is the one I watch least frequently, as there is something seriously wrong with the color – the red of the Nutcracker and the violet of the mouse king’s cape seem to have bled in the original film print before they were digitized, leading to an unpleasant blurring in the DVD.
The second is a BBC video, which for years was shown every Christmas on PBS. This performance, of the Royal Ballet at Convent Garden, is much more recent, with a copyright date of 2000. The third, the San Francisco Ballet, has a copyright of 2008 and replaced the BBC Nutcracker on PBS a couple of years ago.
Although the three share the same music, they are rather different in staging and in some of the dances. The first act, at home Christmas Eve, is costumed, stage dressed and to some extent choreographed according to the time and place selected. I’m no expert on dress, but the Bolshoi and Royal Ballet versions looked similar to me, with “Victorian” dress and house, though supposedly in Europe. The San Francisco Ballet version was explicitly set in San Francisco during the 1915 World’s Fair, and the clothing was much softer.
The three versions also differ in how Clara and the Nutcracker Prince travel to the land of sweets: a ship that flies through the air in the Bolshoi version, a sleigh piloted by Christmas Angels in the Royal Ballet version, and a sleigh pulled by dancers costumed as horses in the San Francisco Ballet. Not two men making one horse, but four prancing dancers, each wearing a crystal horse head. The effect was surprisingly evocative of real horses.
There are also differences in the story. In the Bolshoi version (where Clara is called Mischa) the Nutcracker Prince and Clara are the lead dancers throughout, though the dancers are different for the two acts. In the Royal Ballet, there are two sets of lead dancers: Clara and the Nutcracker Prince in both acts, and the Sugar Plum Fairy and her prince (who is not the Nutcracker) in the second act. In the San Francisco version, The Nutcracker Prince is apparently the consort of the Sugar Plum Fairy, but Clara is transformed into a ballerina for the Pas de deux with the Prince.
Probably the most popular part of the ballet – and most of the Nutcracker Suite – is what I will call the ethnic dances: the Spanish, Arabian, Chinese and Russian dances, along with the Dance of the Mirlitons (Marzipan dance in the Bolshoi version) and the Waltz of the Flowers. In the Bolshoi version, the first four are danced by pairs of dancers, male and female. In the Royal Ballet version, only the Spanish Dance has a balance of male and female dancers, and Clara and/or the Nutcracker join in these dances. The San Francisco version is the only one with Madame du Cirque and the dancing bear, but the music for that section is in the Bolshoi version, where it accompanies the ethnic dancers who join the marzipan shepherd and shepherdess after their dance. The Chinese dance in the San Francisco version is based on the Chinese New Year parades in Chinatown, with a dragon chasing a single male dancer.
My favorite part? The ballet danced by the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Prince in the Royal Ballet version. Those dancers are incredible athletes, to make such effort look so light and graceful.