A suite of 'Nutcrackers' for Christmas

It was the ballet score that Tchaikovsky never wanted to write and it drove him to dementia. When
The Nutcracker was finally complete, the critics hated it too.

It was the ballet score that Tchaikovsky never wanted to write and it drove him to dementia. When The Nutcracker was finally complete, the critics hated it too.

But within a decade of the composer's death in 1893, the ballet was a firm favourite. This Christmas, around 250,000 people will see Clara, the Sugar Plum Fairy and the rest of the colourful cast pirouette their way across stages from Inverness to Croydon.

Jodi Myers, who has booked the Moscow Stanislavsky Ballet for the second year at the Royal Festival Hall in London, said that in her 30 years' experience of programming she could not remember another season so stuffed with Nutcrackers.

"I don't think there have been as many large-scale productions before. And I went on to the Web, and there is a huge number of Nutcrackers around the world. It's extraordinary," she said.

The ballet is based on a book called The Nutcracker and the Mouse King by E T A Hoffman. In the Western European version, it tells the story of Clara and how, after a Christmas Eve party at her family home, she falls asleep and is transported to the lands of snow and sweets. In the Russian tradition, the little girl is Masha and she goes to the land of fairies.

Ms Myers said the only comparable work for "timelessness and fantasy" was Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. And at two hours, plus an interval, the ballet was the right length for a family outing - though it is not recommended for under-sevens. "What a lot of people are looking foris something a family or group of different ages can come to together," Ms Myers said. "Our matinées are virtually sold out already."

The ballet was introduced to Britain in the 1930s, and rapidly became popular both in traditional versions and radical updates such as Matthew Bourne's, premiered in 2002, or Hard Nut, the Mark Morris spin-off seen last month at Sadler's Wells in London.

The English National Ballet (ENB) at the London Coliseum has staged it every Christmas since 1950 and is currently on its twelfth production, designed by the caricaturist Gerald Scarfe. More than six million people have seen an ENB production. "We are virtually responsible for creating the Christmas tradition," a spokesman said. "We unabashedly set about trying to encourage families to come. It's a very easy entry level to the art form. And it's just magic."

The Birmingham Royal Ballet's version at the Birmingham Hippodrome was created for the company in 1990 by Peter Wright, its director at the time, as a thank-you gift to the city for its generosity towards the company after its move from London to the Midlands. It has been seen 180 times in the city to date. "It always plays to packed houses. This year there's not a seat to be had," a spokeswoman said.

Nearly 70,000 people will get the chance to see the Scottish Ballet's production over the festive season in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Inverness. Indeed, its version will still be going in February in Belfast. And the impresario Raymond Gubbay is making sure that cities and towns including Leeds, Hull and Croydon are not left out by bringing back the Siberia State Ballet for the third year.

"There's certainly a market there," he said. The Siberia State Ballet, a permanent company set up in 1978, will still be touring in March which is when the citizens of Plymouth will finally get their festive Nutcracker.

"We think they are filling a need. There aren't that many permanent companies here to fulfil the demand. There are lots of venues and they don't all want pantomimes," he said. "Having a ballet is a really good alternative. We hope it goes on to inspire the audiences of the future to stay with it and see how marvellous ballet can be."

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