"Without The Nutcracker, there'd be no ballet in America as we know it." That was Boston Ballet general manager D. David Brown speaking, back in 1986, and it would be hard to argue the point. America is, as the title of Jennifer Fisher's 2003 book puts it, Nutcracker Nation, the country that's taken Peter Tchaikovsky's holiday ballet to its heart. And nowhere more so than in Boston. In its 1990s heyday at the Wang Theatre, Boston Ballet's Nutcracker was the most-watched production anywhere, drawing as many as 140,000 spectators a year, and accounting for well over half of the company's annual box office. It's become a Boston tradition, like the Marathon, or Fourth of July on the Esplanade.
This year, however, Boston Ballet artistic director Mikko Nissinen has reconceived the production, giving it a new time frame, a new beginning, and a new ending. He's also replaced the Helen Pond–Herbert Senn sets from 1978 and David Walker's costumes from 1995 with new designs by Robert Perdziola, whose credits include American Ballet Theatre and the Metropolitan Opera. It's a big gamble he's taking with the company's cash cow; if it doesn't come off, there might be no ballet in Boston as we know it.
The odd thing about The Nutcracker is that the ballet barely registered when it premiered, on December 6, 1892, at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg. It played on a bill with the Tchaikovsky opera Iolanthe, and neither work fared well with the critics. In Russia, The Nutcracker enjoyed just 11 performances that season and reappeared sporadically. The ballet did spread to Europe and eventually America, and you could argue that what ignited interest here was the "Nutcracker Suite" segment of the 1940 Walt Disney film Fantasia, with Cossack thistles exploding through the trepak, Chinese mushrooms bowing and scurrying, fish swirling sensuously to the Arabian dance's English horn, and fairies gliding balletically on ice. George Balanchine himself played Herr Drosselmeier in the New York City Ballet production of The Nutcracker that aired on CBS Christmas night in 1957 and 1958. Rudolf Nureyev brought his version to the Royal Ballet in 1968; Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gelsey Kirkland starred in the ABT Nutcracker that aired on PBS in 1977. Soon auteur productions were springing up. Mark Morris's The Hard Nut set the action in '50s/'60s America and gave the Nutcracker an Elvis pompadour. Patrice Bart replaced the mice with Russian revolutionaries. Maurice Béjart turned his Nutcracker into a story of "Elle, the Mother," with a carrot-haired Félix the Cat, an angel playing the accordion, and dancers in Mao outfits riding bicycles.
Boston Ballet, however, has never strayed far from the 1816 E.T.A. Hoffmann novella, Nutcracker and Mouse King, that provided the libretto for Tchaikovsky's score. And over the decades, the company's warm and cozy production has been rife with details, some clever, some sentimental, some funny. Walker drew on the English mummers' play St. George and the Dragon, dressing the Nutcracker as St. George, in white and red, and the Mouse King as the Turkish Knight, in green and gold with turban and scimitar. (The Mouse King also sported a cat's-head trophy belt.) The Silberhauses' grandfather clock was topped with an owl, the enemy of mice, and at one point Drosselmeier, himself a watchmaker, appeared at the top of the clock and flapped the wings of his cloak. In the middle of the party's evening-ending Grossvater Tanz, Clara's Grandpa and Grandma always broke into an out-of-control polka; there were also years when Grandpa, enjoying a second childhood, stole Fritz's new hobby horse and rode it around the room. During the battle scene, four baby mice would parody the Dance of the Cygnets from Swan Lake, and when the Mouse King went down, a corps of mice ran on with a Red Cross stretcher and attempted CPR.
Many Bostonians have grown up with The Nutcracker as part of their lives. Nissinen, who was born in Finland, did not. "I was in the Kirov Ballet School, I was age 17, when I did my first Nutcracker," he tells me. "It was the grand pas de deux, on the Mariinsky stage. I wasn't the baby mouse or anything else; I started the other way around. I had seen the grand pas de deux, but I had never seen the full version until I went to Russia."