Cracking open ‘The Nutcracker’s’ dark Russian past

Brett Pruitt
Kansas City Ballet dancer Kevin Wilson in its 2019 production of “The Nutcracker.” With its origins in Russia, historians say, the ballet reflects a history of czars and violence.

Cute kids, antic elders, a dessert buffet that springs to life, all swirling to those gorgeous Tchaikovsky melodies – is it any wonder that “The Nutcracker” is one of the most popular ballets in the country, if not the world?

Yet when you dig into the Russian roots of this holiday classic, there’s a dark history that may change the way you think about it.

The fruits of a violent imperial system lie behind the work’s bright, bouncy “Chinese” dance, with its pleated fans and parasols, and its slow, seductive “Arabian” scene, with ballerinas in gossamer harem pants. At “The Nutcracker’s” premiere on Dec. 18, 1892, in St. Petersburg, the ballet paid homage to the czar and his empire, and within its affectionate tale of family celebration and childhood fantasy are the footsteps of a more brutal narrative. If you look at some of the forces giving rise to it, and that still live within it, “The Nutcracker” isn’t all that sweet.

“It was reflecting a czarist culture,” says Jennifer Fisher, author of “Nutcracker Nation: How an Old World Ballet Became a Christmas Tradition in the New World.” “What it is to have a master when you’re a servant and you’re supported by the czar, and royalty always has to be celebrated. The choreographers do know who’s paying the bills.”

To be clear, this isn’t about cancelng “Nutcracker.” It’s about understanding the lived experiences from which the ballet sprang. They’re not entirely unique to Russia (consider America’s colonial past). But they prompt reflection on why they were carried into the ballet. Their traces circle back to an authoritarian system that foreshadowed expansionist events today.

“The history of Russia is a history of violence,” says Princeton music professor Simon Morrison, author of “Bolshoi Confidential: Secrets of the Russian Ballet from the Rule of the Tsars to Today.” “The reason Moscow became its head was through acts of incredible aggression. And a lot of the culture was imported, including ballet. Music came in via Ukraine and Poland – in some cases musicians and singers were kidnapped from Kyiv and hauled up to Moscow. There are horror stories all the way to the Far East.”

The Russian empire ballooned in the 19th century, swallowing up the Caucasus and Central Asia on its march into the Far East. One can only imagine the sorrow and worse produced by these occupations. Czarist control also bound “The Nutcracker’s” creators, of course. Tchaikovsky, for instance, was a favorite of Alexander III, and composed music for his coronation. Coronation rituals were deeply ingrained, and included a lavish banquet and a parade of foreign ambassadors paying homage. These rituals are transformed into child-friendly fun in “The Nutcracker,” where the second act brims with human depictions of imported delicacies from Russia’s trade routes. Chinese tea, Arabian coffee, chocolate from Spain and so on: They’re all served forth on the stage.

“This ballet is essentially a trading post, with a battle in the middle and then an imperial banquet,” says Morrison.

Indeed, all these years later, in just about any version of “The Nutcracker” that you might see today, Act II follows the coronation-banquet ceremony quite neatly. In an atmosphere of lavish pomp and royal luxury, the queenly Sugar Plum Fairy presides over choreographed tributes by different groups of leaping, frolicking, food-bearing “ambassadors.” Of course, part of “The Nutcracker’s” durability into the modern age is that it’s endlessly adaptable to different locales and time periods, giving rise to fresh decor and even new names for some of the original dances. The Washington Ballet’s production, for example, takes place in tony Georgetown by the Potomac River. But in most cases, this second-act parade of goodies and other key elements of the story haven’t changed in 130 years.

Here’s the basic plot: At her parents’ Christmas Eve party, young Clara (or Marie, in some versions) receives a wooden nutcracker doll, and after the household goes to bed, she helps the doll fend off an invasion of rats and mice. The grateful nutcracker becomes a living prince and leads Clara through a spinning snowstorm of ballerinas to a sugary kingdom where flamenco-style dancers spin with twisting torsos and entwining arms as fleshly embodiments of Spanish chocolate. French “Mirlitons” – the name describes a kind of flute and a flute-shaped pastry – evoke the origins of Russian ballet in the courts of France. There’s also energizing tea and rich coffee: hot drinks from afar.

Of course, these lands are made up of people and customs and cultures, but in the czarist view – necessarily, that is also “The Nutcracker’s” view – the people are secondary to what they produce. That is, goods on the empire’s shopping list.

“The Nutcracker” was dreamed up after the smashing success of “The Sleeping Beauty,” which also featured music by Tchaikovsky and dances by Russia’s prized French-born choreographer Marius Petipa. Both ballets were hatched by a man named Ivan Vsevolozhsky, whom Alexander III installed as director of the imperial theaters. So Petipa, working for the man with a direct line to the czar, was under a little pressure.

According to Morrison, this meant honoring Alexander by recapping his coronation feast – a big deal in a czar’s life – and promoting the splendors of the empire, particularly foods from distant lands carried back to Russian kitchens.

And so the ballet’s Act II Kingdom of Sweets, Morrison says, “is a childlike version” of the banquet, “without the wanton drunkenness. There’s no dances of vodka and wine, but tea and coffee.”

These, along with the dancing chocolates and pastries, represent “what you can take from the land, all in service to the crown. And it includes the commodification of peoples. It’s about what these places are worth to us, not in terms of the people but in terms of spices and goods.”

And the French pastry? It performs double duty here, as a delicious symbol of the brand-new military pact between Russia and France. Efforts to flatter the French are also clear in photos from the 1892 original, Morrison points out, with hints of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia – disastrous for both nations, each suffering hundreds of thousands of dead. Yet “The Nutcracker” gives it a friendly spin.

“The Franco-Russian alliance was depicted in the original costuming,” Morrison says. “Initially the nutcracker is fighting the mice on his own, then he has to summon the toy soldiers. And they’re in Napoleonic garb – reserves from the past. And some guests in the party scene are costumed from the Napoleonic era. It’s celebrating an alliance in the making.”

“It’s all distilled into something that delights children but is full of references to the nation that produced it,” he continues. “It’s not like you can say there’s a coherent geopolitical story told here, but here and there are echoes of history.”

Tchaikovsky filled out the ballet with imported melodies. The “Arabian” music is a Georgian lullaby. The bravura “Russian” dance – with its deep squats and high leaps – is based on a Ukrainian folk dance. The “Grandfather Dance” in the Act I Christmas party is a 17th-century German folk tune. The airy tinkling sound that gives the Sugar Plum Fairy’s solo an aspect of the supernatural was produced by a celesta, a French keyboard instrument that Tchaikovsky asked his publisher to order from Paris, in secret.

“I am afraid Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov might hear of it,” the composer wrote, “and make use of the new effect before I could.”

“The Nutcracker” is, basically, a mosaic of musical, historical and cultural influences, right down to its literary inspiration: a German short story by E.T.A. Hoffmann, titled “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.” And the art form itself – classical ballet – was transplanted from France, as was Petipa, the choreographer. In all of this, Morrison sees a metaphor for the patchwork nature of the Russian empire.

“It is all borrowed sounds. That’s what Russian culture was, a lot of borrowing,” he says. “This is a beautiful, childlike, quaint illusion of empire. But it’s fantasy of empire because the empire is a fantasy. It was very fragile, and then a couple of wars took it down. End of the empire, and the Bolsheviks took over.”

Inside the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre, where “The Nutcracker” was being created, things were also in a fragile state. Petipa’s 15-year-old daughter had recently died and, possibly weakened by grief, the choreographer fell gravely ill while working on the ballet. His assistant, Lev Ivanov, finished it. Tchaikovsky was also reeling from loss. His beloved younger sister had died the previous year, and he composed “The Nutcracker’s” second act in her memory. This undoubtedly accounts for some of the mournful notes in an otherwise romanticized, nostalgic view of youth.

And audience reaction?

“It seemed to me that the public did not like it,” Tchaikovsky wrote. “They were bored.” He died less than a year later, believing his ballet had flopped, never dreaming it would achieve great fame.

It took decades for this to happen. Even in the 1930s, the cliched depictions of national dances in the second act came under fire. Dance historian Cyril Beaumont panned a 1934 revival of “The Nutcracker” in London, which he assumed was based on Ivanov’s original choreography. “It passes the understanding,” Beaumont wrote in his “Complete Book of Ballets,” “that ‘Coffee’ should be conveyed by a Stomach Dance … and that ‘Tea’ should be suggested by a couple of ridiculous Chinese whose ‘number’ seems to have been borrowed from a pantomime version of Aladdin.”

Yet he praised the duet for the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier, as well as their solo variations, and indeed these remain some of the loveliest expressions of tenderness and grace in the ballet canon.

In this country, “Nutcracker” versions by Willam Christensen for the San Francisco Ballet in 1944 and, a decade later, George Balanchine for the New York City Ballet caught the public’s imagination and ignited a holiday tradition. Yet in many productions, much of the stereotyping that pervaded the 1892 original remains.

The ballet “immigrated, so it’s now reflecting not only the stereotypes the Russians had, but an anti-Asian bias here in the U.S. is baked into ‘The Nutcracker’ stereotypes,” says Fisher. “The Fu Manchu mustache, the peaked worker’s hat. Even if there are authentic elements, they’re put together in a mishmash.”

Gradually, the ballet world has begun rethinking some of the cultural insensitivities in works based on European fantasies of “exotic” locales – and “The Nutcracker” is only one of these. For example, depictions of Hindu rites in the Indian fantasy “La Bayadere” and the enslavement of women in the pirate-themed “Le Corsaire” have raised criticisms.

“Is ballet a multiracial art form that includes everyone, or is it just a folk dance done by kings and queens?” asks Phil Chan, an advocate for ending Asian stereotyping and author of “Final Bow for Yellowface: Dancing between Intention and Impact.” “Is it just a regurgitation of the past, or is ballet an art form that is urgent and alive? We have to choose.”

He’s taken particular aim at the “Chinese” dance in the “The Nutcracker.” Chan points with pride to a new version, unveiled last season, by Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet, which performs Balanchine’s choreography but has renamed (and re-costumed) the male lead in its celebration of tea as the Green Tea Cricket.

“Crickets are a potent Chinese symbol of hope and good luck and spring,” Chan says. “To Chinese people they’re a beautiful symbol that fits what is happening in ‘The Nutcracker’ but it’s not cliche. It’s not another dragon dance with a fan and kung fu kicks.”

This is exactly the kind of informed, imaginative and artistically sound update that ballet needs, says Fisher.

“Ballet is a beautiful technique, with a beautiful, illustrious history,” she says. “There is so much to save of it. But not the attitude toward groups of people.

“We should focus on new ways,” she continues, “that don’t depend on the authoritarianism of the czar’s ballet.”