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Theatre / The Nutcracker

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The familiar ballet based on Alexandre Dumas's adaptation of E. T. A. Hoffmann's The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. The plot is much simpler than Hoffmann's story: A young girl (named "Marie" in the original book, usually called "Maria" or "Masha" in current Russian adaptations and generally changed to "Clara" in English versions) receives a toy nutcracker for Christmas from her Godfather and local toymaker, Herr Drosselmeyer. That night, after the festivities are over, she creeps into the living room to see him one more time and witnesses a battalion of mice invading the house, led by the seven-headed Mouse King. The Nutcracker, suddenly animate and sentient, rallies his forces to defeat them (in most versions Clara's thrown shoe turns the tide). The Nutcracker transforms into a handsome prince and invites Clara to visit his palace in the Land of Sweets. There, the residents of that magical world entertain them with several musical numbers. Then Clara wakes up and realizes it was All Just a Dream.

The score by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky is extremely well-known, and both the complete ballet and the shorter "Nutcracker Suite" are perennial favorites for Christmastime performances. This entry at the Other Wiki lists some of the more popular takes on the ballet.

There have been quite a few feature-length adaptations as well, many reincorporating elements of the original Hoffman story, and two straight film adaptations of the ballet itself.

Perhaps most notably, the music from the Nutcracker Suite was prominently featured in Disney's Fantasia, though without any of the ballet characters.

The ballet provides examples of:

  • Adaptation Name Change: Marie's name is traditionally changed to Clara. Averted in the Joffrey Ballet, Hungarian National Ballet, Atlanta Ballet as well as the New York City Ballet production by Balanchine and its 1993 film version, which calls her Marie, and by all Russian productions, which call her "Masha", a Russian diminutive of "Maria".
  • Adaptational Jerkass: This is often the case with Clara's annoying brother Fritz, who in the original story breaks the Nutcracker's jaw by accident, but in many ballet productions breaks it on purpose out of jealousy. (See also Character Exaggeration.) Inverted in the Baryshnikov production, however, where Fritz is boisterous yet harmless, and a drunken adult party guest accidentally breaks the Nutcracker instead – this man later becomes the Mouse King in Clara's dream.
  • Adaptation Species Change: In the Ballet Jörgen production, the Mouse King is a bat. The Act II divertissements are performed by various animals and Mother Ginger is a spruce tree. Justified as Act II is set in a forest during the summer rather than the Land of Sweets.
  • Adapted Out: Various versions have been known to drop certain characters.
    • Clara/Marie and Fritz's older sister Louise is removed in many productions. Some productions also remove Fritz and make Clara an only child.
    • In some productions, the Sugar Plum Fairy's Cavalier is removed and she dances with the Nutcracker Prince or Drosselmeyer instead. Sometimes, the Sugar Plum Fairy is removed as well and Clara performs her dance with the Nutcracker Prince.
      • Subverted in the American Ballet Theater version, where the Fairy is present but has now been relegated to a grandmotherly type role. Clara and the Prince still dance the final pas de deux.
      • The San Francisco Ballet production also has the fairy intact but here she takes part in the Waltz of the Flowers. Clara, who has magically transformed into an adult, and the Prince still dance the final pas de deux.
    • Mother Ginger doesn't appear in every production either. The dance normally associated with her is sometimes performed by all the "international" dancers joining together, or else given to totally different characters – Baryshnikov's version, for example, gives it to a band of Harlequin-like clowns.
    • The Nutcracker's backstory involving Princess Pirlipat and the Mouse Queen isn't present in the ballet, as well as his relation to Drosselmeyer.
  • All Just a Dream: The ballet usually ends like this, with Marie/Clara waking up the next day. Compared with the book, it's a Downer Ending. However, there are some variations.
    • In the Balanchine version, she flies off in a sleigh with the prince, giving the impression the dream was real after all, just like in the book.
    • Many versions also include an Or Was It a Dream? moment at the very end where Clara/Marie meets up with the prince in the "real" world as a Shout-Out to the Hoffmann novel. She has also been known to find a trinket she was given in the Land Of Sweets under her pillow, such as a ring or a crown, as seen in the Royal ballet version.
    • The Royal Ballet's version (which is cast with older dancers as Clara/Marie and the Prince) ends with her running home and encountering a young man (the Prince) who is looking for his uncle. He races to Drosselmeyer's shop and a joyous reunion now the spell has been broken. It turns out that Drosselmeyer had orchestrated the events in an attempt to break his nephew’s spell.
    • One version had Clara and the prince go to The Land of Dolls, the dance numbers were performed, then a curtain call, and the play ended there.
    • The Harlem Nutcracker has Clara waking up on her couch, indicating this trope. But when she sees the ghost of her husband beckoning to her, she realizes it was her Dying Dream.
    • The Japanese animated feature turns the action into a Dream Within a Dream...within a dream! AND it turns out to be Or Was It a Dream? as well.
  • And You Were There: Many productions will have dancers who played guests at the Christmas party in the first act appear as assorted dancers in the second act. For example, the Grandmother at the party may later appear as Mother Ginger. The same goes for productions that have Clara meeting/interacting with the Nutcracker's "real life" counterpart and any who have Drosselmeyer taking part in Clara's adventure. Some productions also foreshadow the Mouse King during the Christmas party in some way: Baryshnikov's production had Drosselmeyer entertain the children with a puppet show where a handsome prince fought a Mouse King, for example, while others have Fritz try to scare his sister with a mouse puppet or mask.
    • The Matthew Bourne version has the dancers who portray the Dross family and the orphans they "care" for as various sweets in the second act. The Drosses themselves become the royal family, a pair of twins who help Clara in the first act become angelic cupids in the second, while the rest of the orphans become an assortment of sweets such marshmallows, gobstoppers, liquorice allsorts etc.
  • Age Lift:
    • Clara/Marie and the Nutcracker are supposed to be children in the story. However, some productions have them being portrayed by adult dancers such as the Royal Ballet version. A Plot-Relevant Age-Up may be used to justify this trope, with Drosselmeyer magically transforming them into adults for their trip to the Land of Sweets.
    • Even in productions where the children are played by children, Clara/Marie is usually cast around eleven or twelve, not seven as she is in the book since the role's dancing demands would be too much for most seven-year-olds.
    • The Harlem Nutcracker and the Graeme Murphy version makes Clara an elderly woman.
  • Annoying Younger Sibling:
  • Ascended Extra: In the Royal Swedish, National Ballet of Canada, and Milwaukee Ballet productions the Friz character joins in with his sister's Christmas adventure. Some productions have Drosselmeyer playing an active role in Clara's dream.
  • Asians Love Tea: The ballet traditionally features a "Chinese tea" segment as the protagonist Clara explores the Land of Sweets. The "Tea" dance includes various Asian elements (Fu Manchu moustaches, conical straw hats)
  • Bittersweet Ending: As outlined under All Just a Dream above: Clara/Marie has her wonderful, magical adventure with the Nutcracker Prince, but it inevitably ends when she wakes up on Christmas morning. This is especially played up in some productions like Baryshnikov's, where she shows clear distress in the end as the Prince and the other fantasy characters slowly drift away from her before she suddenly finds herself back home. Downplayed in other productions like Balanchine's, which lacks the traditional "waking up" conclusion and ends with Marie and the Prince happily flying home in a sleigh, or the Royal Ballet production and others like it, where after waking up, she meets and has a Maybe Ever After with Drosselmeyer's nephew who looks just like the Prince.
  • Character Exaggeration: In the original story, Fritz is a precocious, boisterous (if sometimes a bit rude) child who accidentally broke the Nutcracker's jaw on a nut that was too large. Some ballet adaptations make him into an outright brat who breaks the Nutcracker when he gets into a fight over it with Clara/Marie. This is taken to the extreme in the Pacific Northwest Ballet's version, where Fritz rips the Nutcracker out of Clara's hands and breaks him for the fun of it.
  • Christmas Special: The ballet is often performed and/or televised around Christmastime.
  • Christmas Songs: A purely instrumental example, but the score is heard so often around the holidays, it counts.
  • Crosscast Role:
    • Some productions have Mother Ginger played by a man for comic effect.
    • In productions where the child characters are danced by adults, the roles of Fritz and the other boys are sometimes taken by women.
  • Crossover: The Youri Vamos version adds elements and characters from A Christmas Carol.
  • Dance of Romance: Some versions have a Clara and the Prince engaging in a very romantic pas de deux during the "woods" sequence. Some also give the iconic Act II pas de deux to Clara and the Prince, making it more obviously romantic than when it's performed by the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier.
  • Darker and Edgier:
    • Some versions, like the Marinsky and American Ballet Theatre versions, apply this to the "Waltz Of The Snowflakes" segment, where the snowflakes take on an almost menacing tone and convey the sense that Clara and the Prince are trapped within a potentially fatal snowstorm. The Marinsky version is this—the lighting of the scene is very dark and the snowflake dancers are clad in black.
    • The Harlem Nutcracker has moments of this, as one of the elderly Clara's flashbacks takes us through the highs and lows of black history, not shying away from the ugliness.
    • The Baryshnikov version poignantly highlights the fact that Clara's dream (and childhood) must inevitably end, first inserting Drosselmeyer into the pas de deux as he tries to lead her away from the Nutcracker Prince and back to the real world, and then highlighting the bittersweet nature of the ending when she finally does wake up.
  • Disney Death: Many productions have the Nutcracker seemingly be fatally wounded by the Mouse King just before the latter is killed and have Clara mourn over him for just a moment before he revives and transforms into a prince.
  • Doppelgänger: In some productions, the Nutcracker has a "real-life" counterpart, usually Drosselmeyer's nephew, whom the Clara/Marie character interacts with either during the Christmas party in act 1 or the end after she wakes up from her dream.
  • Ethereal Choir: The "Waltz Of The Snowflakes" piece is often accompanied by this. Taken to downright eerie levels in some productions—in the Marinsky version, the singing is done by an actual children's choir onstage—the ghosts of children who have frozen to death in these woods in winters past.
  • Foreshadowing: In some productions, the dolls/puppets in Act 1 give us hints of the story to come by their costumes and/or doing a dance that tells a story.
  • God Save Us from the Queen!: A few productions add a Mouse Queen wife for the Mouse King.
  • The High Queen: The Sugarplum Fairy seems to be this.
  • Hot Consort: Sugarplum's partner, the Cavalier, is a gender-flipped version of this.
  • Hotter and Sexier:
    • Some productions cast Drosselmeyer as a suave young man rather than an eccentric old one.
    • There is at least one production called "The Slutcracker", where almost all of the dancers are in various NSFW outfits, such as burlesque, BDSM gear, and so on, as well as the dances being considerably more suggestive.
    • The "Sugar Rum Cherry" sequence in The Harlem Nutcracker production.
    • The Arabian dance in most productions as it often features a female dancer dressed like a Belly Dancer. Sometimes the men may appear topples.
  • Improbable Weapon User: In most versions, Clara kills the Mouse King by throwing her shoe at him. Others are a bit more realistic by having her shoe only distract the Mouse King long enough for the Nutcracker to kill him with his sword.
  • Level Ate: The Land of Sweets, populated with various dancing delicacies and the Sugar Plum Fairy.
  • Mind Screw: The story ends up being replete with dream logic.
  • National Stereotypes: Most of the Act II divertissements are made of this trope with each of them representing a treat.
  • One-Gender Race: The Snowflakes and the Flowers come across this way in most productions, being portrayed by all-female groups of corps dancers.
  • Pajama-Clad Hero: Clara/Marie spends most of the ballet, from the middle of Act I to the end, in her nightgown.
  • Parent Service: Most of the dances are playful or, at most, romantic. Some performances of Arabian Coffee, however, involve a woman in a harem costume climbing out of a giant mug. Coffee is usually considered an adult drink.
  • Peacock Girl: The Pacific Northwest Ballet's performance of Coffee has a woman in a peacock costume.
  • Plant Person: The Waltz of the Flowers features dancing flowers.
  • Plot-Relevant Age-Up:
    • Some versions have Clara transform into a young woman when she enters the Land of Sweets (or even earlier, in the woods sequence before the Waltz Of The Snowflakes) usually for practical purposes (so that she can do more difficult and complicated dancing in Act II).
    • The Harlem Nutcracker makes Clara an elderly woman and turns the Land Of Sweets sequence into a flashback. Graeme Murphy's version uses a similar plot device.
    • The American Ballet Theatre version has a variation of this trope as there are adult Doppelgangers of Clara and the Nutcracker who are portrayed by children in this production.
  • Race Lift:
    • The Hot Chocolate Nutcracker makes all the characters black, places the story in the modern-day and an urban setting.
    • The Harlem Nutcracker makes all the characters black and includes an Age Lift by making Clara an old woman and the Nutcracker Prince the ghost of her late husband. The Land of Sweets sequence is a flashback through their life together. She wakes up on the couch in her living room, echoing the All Just a Dream ending of many productions before it segues into the Or Was It a Dream? ending that is also typical of many productions, as well as a Dying Dream: The ghost of her husband appears to her again, only this time to escort her into the afterlife.
    • In 2019, the New York City Ballet cast Charlotte Nebres as the first African-American in the company's history to play Marie. Tanner Quirk (the Prince) is half-Chinese, the alternate Marie, Sophia Thomopoulos, is half-Korean, half-Greek; and the alternate prince, Kai Misra-Stone, is half-South Asian.
  • Setting Update: "The Hard Nut" by the Mark Morris Dance Group relocates the story in 1960’s America.
  • Small Reference Pools: This is one of the handful of ballets that everybody knows about, coming in for the photo finish with Swan Lake.
  • Standard Snippet: Tchaikovsky's score is the source of such omnipresent music as "Dance of the Reed Flutes," "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy," and "Russian Dance (Trepak)." Unless you've never heard any music at all, it's a pretty sure bet that you've heard this one.
  • Stock Scream: The "Wilhelm Scream" is heard in the film of the Pacific Northwest Ballet version, when a mouse soldier is killed.
  • That Russian Squat Dance: It, or something like it, will often appear in the Russian dance in the Land of Sweets.
  • Time-Shifted Actor: Due to a more complicated pas de deux for Masha in the second act, the Mariinsky production will cast an eleven- or twelve-year-old student from the Vaganova Academy as Masha, and another, older student as Princess Masha for the second act. The best students at the Academy will often have played both roles by the time they graduate.
  • Unrelated in the Adaptation: The Dayton (Ohio) Ballet retells the story with Historical Domain Characters, with Clara represented by local philanthropist Virginia Kettering as a child. Mrs. Kettering had no brother, so the Fritz character is just a neighbor boy.
  • Wacky Wayside Tribe: Unless the director makes a very strong effort to avert it, the plot tends to stall once the characters reach the Land of Sweets. The Harlem Nutcracker mostly averts this; as stated above, this sequence is a chronological flashback through her life — meeting her husband, marriage, children, etc.
  • Winter Royal Lady: The Snow Queen. The Snow King, who appears in some productions, is a gender-flipped version of this trope.