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The Nutcracker: from childhood to maturity

Choreographic Adaptations: Nureyev, Balanchine and Béjart

The Nutcracker: from childhood to maturity

Inspired by E.T.A. Hoffmann’s German tale, the ballet The Nutcracker was first performed on the 18th December 1892 at the Mariinski Theatre in Saint Petersburg. The music was by Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and the choreography by Lev Ivanov, Marius Petipa’s assistant. A ballet in two acts, centred around the passage from childhood to adulthood, its plot has inspired numerous choreographers, resulting in a multi-faceted Nutcracker. Now that Dmitri Tcherniakov’s production is being revived at the Palais Garnier, Paola Dicelli turns her attention to the awakening of Clara, a young adolescent searching for herself.


When Dmitri Tcherniakov chose to stage The Nutcracker at the Paris Opera in 2016, at the same time as the opera Iolanta, also by Tchaikovsky, he called upon not one but three choreographers, each with a very different approach. The result was an original version, provided by Arthur Pita, Edouard Lock and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, in which the character of Clara, who plunges into a dream on Christmas Eve, turns out to be resolutely modern. From a quirky family dinner, the young adolescent slips into a rite of passage during which she is awakened to sensuality. Thus, the second pas-de-deux, choreographed by Cherkaoui, in which Clara dances with a nutcracker transformed into a prince, is not without evoking an act of love: her hair loose, in contrast to the first pas-de-deux, she seems to be giving herself utterly to her lover. When the blind Iolanta, the heroine of Tchaikovsky’s opera that precedes the ballet, touches Clara’s face, it is also to open her eyes to love. Having recovered her sight thanks to her love for Vaudémont, she passes on the secret to the heroine of The Nutcracker. And the two women merge into one.

Casse-Noisette dans la version de Rudolf Noureev (avec Amandine Albisson)
Casse-Noisette dans la version de Rudolf Noureev (avec Amandine Albisson) © Sébastien Mathé / OnP

This awakening to femininity had already been explored by Rudolph Nureyev in his 1967 production (the first version to be performed at Stockholm Opera) then in 1985 for the Paris Opera Ballet. However, if in the toy tableau Edouard Lock places the emphasis on the “sugarplum” aspect of The Nutcracker, featuring, notably, giant penguins with disquieting stares (the effect of which is reinforced by the different facets of Clara’s personality), Nureyev went farther and broke away drastically from the sweeter versions of Ivanov, and then Balanchine (1954). The enchantment is gone, to be replaced by the heroine’s nightmares. The stage is sparsely lit, the mice are fierce, jumping at Clara with no hesitation in order to steal her Nutcracker; the battle between the soldiers and the mice threatens to be very violent. The spectator is thus invited to plunge into the chaotic thoughts of an adolescent, in the midst of her transition to maturity. Whilst Tcherniakov’s Clara reveals her sensuality as the tableaux unfold, that of Nureyev discovers the world on the arm of her prince. The toy, (childhood) that transforms into a man (desire) takes on its full significance with Nureyev. Similarly, in his version, Uncle Drosselmeyer, who gives her the nutcracker, and the prince, are interpreted by the same dancer embodying two masculine entities idealised by the young girl, each of them helping her to free herself of childhood and its shadows, and to open herself up to the world.

The fairy tale fantasy is undermined, whereas George Balanchine and Maurice Béjart both chose to preserve it, each with a different interpretation. In that of the Russian choreographer, all the topoi of the “family Christmas ballet” are there: the grandiloquent décor, with pillars resembling candy canes, humour (two little girls come out from under the queen’s dress) and above all, an innocent atmosphere. Balanchine’s Clara is thus represented with much more candour than in other choreographic versions. His is the only version in which the heroine does not wake up: dragged off by the prince, she disappears on a sledge, as if the dream were to be prolonged for ever.

Casse- Noisette dans la version de Maurice Béjart, Teatro Regio de Turin, 1998.
Casse- Noisette dans la version de Maurice Béjart, Teatro Regio de Turin, 1998. © Colette Masson/Roger-Viollet

With Maurice Béjart (1998), the fantasy is rather to do with nostalgia for childhood. Indeed, it is doubtless his most personal ballet, the choreographer representing himself through the character of Bim (Clara no longer exists) and evoking in this production the last Christmas he spent with his mother, who died when he was only eight years old. An eminently Fellinian production, which begins with the choreographer’s own words: “I remember”. Doubtless a nod to Italian film maker's Amarcord made in 1973. On stage, the nutcracker is replaced by a statue of Venus, evoking the figure of the mother. In accordance with his own voyage in the world (including France which is represented by Yvette Horner), Béjart retraces his own journey but, as in Balanchine, little Bim does not seem to grow up; the ballet is constructed as a last good-bye to his mother, in the form of a homage.

The Nutcracker is thus a story whose appeal is as much personal as universal and which has also inspired cinema. However, in whichever decade, film adaptations seem to arouse less interest that the ballets (doubtless because the spectacular performance aspect is given more importance than the psychology of the characters). The film The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, which came out last November backed by the Disney studios, was a box-office failure worldwide, thus leaving the stage clear for choreographic interpretations.

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