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The Nutcracker: Russia’s most enchanting ballet

Many of us will be visiting ballet houses around the world to indulge in the family’s favourite Christmas show, Tchaikovsky’s ‘Nutcracker’. Even those of us that have seen this festive favourite repeatedly might ask ourselves, what are the dances in the Nutcracker? Let’s take a look at the most iconic scenes of one of the best love ballets of all time.

Setting the Scene

The story starts on Christmas Eve, with a party at Stahlbaum’s House. The talented and reclusive godfather Herr Drosselmeyer delights the gathering with his life-size dolls. He gives Clara the eponymous nutcracker. Clara sneaks down, after bedtime to cuddle her nutcracker to sleep under the tree. Here comes the magic….and a war! The army of mice battle with toy soldiers and in the last moment, when all looks lost, Clara saves the nutcracker with a well time shoe thrown at the Mouse King. More magic ensues and the pair are whisked to the Land of the Sweets, the Marzipan castle and the Sugar Plum Fairy herself.

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The sugar plum fairy rewards the noble soldiers, for battling the mice who dare to nibble the Christmas treats. When the ballet was first written, travel was not as easy as it is for you and I, and so the dances here show off the culture and costumes of a fantasy take on Christmas treats from around the world. 

Dances in the Nutcracker

First up for the enjoyment of Clara and the Nutcracker, we the ‘Spanish Dance’. This dance celebrates chocolate. Tchaikovsky’s music is full of lively castanets and trumpets as the dancers take on the steps of the Fandango. The dancers sometimes accessorise with fans

This is followed by the sultry ‘Arabian Dance’. The music slows down to a steady rhythm. Performers move their bodies like the rising steam of rich coffee, conjuring a deep and alluring dance bringing to mind the heat of the coffee.

Of course, for those of us that want to get to sleep before midnight, we might choose ta instead of coffee and so we have the famous ‘Chinese Tea Dance’. The staccato plucking of the strings is matched with the most joyful point bouncing, usually in a pas de deux.

Next, we see the infamous ‘Russian Dance’.  Quite possibly the best-known ballet music and most love dance of the whole act. You will have the music from this once in your head for at least a week after watching. In this show, we meet the athletic and acrobatic dancers performing Russian splits and kazotsky kicks.

The sixth dance is led by Mother Ginger. Her gigantic skirt is traditionally a gingerbread house. As she makes her way into the Sugar Plum Fairy’s court, eight little gingerbread children slip out of her huge skirt and start dancing and circling around her. The lively music, full of festive bells matches the bundled energy of the little gingerbread children.

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The ‘Dance of the Mirlitons’ comes next and you’ll realise ahhh yes, this tune as it is another iconic earworm delivered by the master Tchaikovsky. These four dancers blow reed flutes to an iconic score. Wondering where the name Mirliton comes from? A mirliton is both a small sweet French cake and a type of musical instrument that produces a coarse, reedy sound. Very clever. 

The Waltz to end all waltzes comes next as we see the ‘Dance of the Flowers’ This beautiful dance is all the traditional elegance of great Russian ballet with dancing couples representing sugar-spun bouquets. Enjoy watching the unbelievable synchronicity of the four couples as Clara tries to play along. This crescendo with the arrival of the charming pixie-like ‘Dew Drop Fairy’.

Finally, the one you’ve all been waiting for: the ‘Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy’. Lighter than air, Tchaikovsky pulled out all the stops by composing the music using what was then, only just invented, the celesta. A mall piano that sounds like those iconic bells. Tchaikovsky kept this instrument a secret from his contemporary composers so that his ballet would have the edge. The Sugar Plum Fairy twirls a dazzling number of times, usually to rapturous applause and filling every young dancer’s head with dreams about being cast as her one day.

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With bright and magical costumes, exciting and varied choreography and an iconic score of music, it is no surprise that even 130 years after this ballet was first performed, the theatres across the world will sell out shows of the incomparable Nutcracker.