The Nutcracker - Simply crackers

It's the most famous ballet in the world, but why is 'The Nutcracker' such a crowd-pleaser? Lyndsey Winship investigates the festive favourite
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The Nutcracker has a stranglehold on Christmas entertainment, and, quite frankly, it's getting boring. It has been estimated that this year half a million people will watch young Clara receive a nutcracker doll for Christmas, then see that doll turn into a handsome prince and whisk her away to the magical Land of Sweets. This winter you can choose from eight different Nutcracker productions around the country and hundreds more worldwide. The fan site lists more than 300 performances from Colorado to Caracas. The New York City Ballet recently celebrated their 2,000th performance of George Balanchine's version, in Paris it's the season of the Casse-Noisette, and in Sydney the Australian Ballet have just completed a sold-out run of their lavish new production.

On Boxing Day the South Bank Show will be examining the ballet's phenomenon and tracing its history from its first performance in 1892 to next year's film version starring Richard E Grant and Nathan Lane. But why does one show deserve to have such a monopoly on the season? Every year there's a new spin. "Look at our new designs, our new costumes!" the companies cry. "Look at our twist on the classic formula!" Why not just put on a different show?

Because Christmas is no time for originality it seems. Plenty of us don't believe in wise men and virgin births, but we still love Christmas. And it's not just the holidays and the presents, it's the ritual. In a changing world, there's something comforting about the same old mistletoe and wine. Never mind peace on Earth and goodwill to all men, you've had a good Christmas if you've ticked all the boxes: mince pies, mulled wine, turkey, gifts, carol concert, Queen's speech, Doctor Who special...

It's why Wizzard and Wham! and Slade are climbing up the charts with their Christmas hits. Familiarity breeds, well, a nice warm fuzzy feeling at this time of year. Which isn't to say that the Nutcracker deserves to be treated with contempt. It's just not the best the art form has to offer.

Originally conceived by Swan Lake creator Marius Petipa and choreographed by his assistant Lev Ivanov for the Mariinsky Theatre, the first production apparently nonplussed the ballet-goers of St Petersburg. An early review read: "For dancers there is rather little in it, for art absolutely nothing, and for the artistic fate of our ballet, one more step downward." Yet following its shaky start, the resurgence of The Nutcracker began in the mid-20th century, perhaps because, after two World Wars, stories of innocence and escapist fantasy were a necessary tonic.

Based on ETA Hoffmann's tale "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King", the story was simplified and jollied-up for the ballet version. In Act I there's a whole load of scene-setting before Clara's nutcracker doll comes to life to do battle with king rat. And there the adventure should begin, but instead, Act II is a string of party-piece divertissements watched by Clara including the famous Sugar Plum Fairy solo by which point children in the audience are plummeting from the interval's sugar rush and start to lose interest as the plot stalls.

It's Tchaikovsky's score that has secured The Nutcracker's success. He's just too darn good at writing ballet music. From the regal fanfare of Act I's March to the unstoppable Russian Trepak dance in Act II and the jewellery box twinkling of the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, all of it is eminently hummable.

It's true that The Nutcracker is many children's introduction to ballet some versions feature dance students in the lead roles, and many a young dancer has made their stage debut as a scurrying mouse but the idea that children relate to the action on stage is questionable when the characters are trussed up in knickerbockers and frills, reinforcing the idea that ballet is archaic and prissy. And come on, who gets a nutcracker for Christmas?

There are exciting things happening in British ballet and a lot of great ways to introduce young people to dance, but it all goes on hold at this time of year. The Nutcracker is what the people want because it's a name everybody knows. That's ballet's trap. If people go to one ballet a year, they're going to pick something familiar, but as long as all you put on at Christmas is The Nutcracker, we'll never know about anything else.

However, there are hints that there is an appetite for something else. English National Ballet created a new wintry ballet, The Snow Queen, this year, the South Bank Centre has done away with dance altogether in favour of children's theatre, and, as well as The Nutcracker, the Royal Opera House is putting on Frederick Ashton's Les Patineurs ("the skaters") and Tales of Beatrix Potter, with Will Tuckett's Pinocchio in the adjoining Linbury theatre. And yet Nutcracker is their golden ticket. It sells out every time and this year seats have been going faster than ever. What will it take to break the spell?