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Rudolf Nureyev The Nutcracker: Nureyev Production Still The Best

by Patricia Boccadoro

ARIS, 6 January 2001 - Came Christmas, and from San Francisco to New York, from Houston to Boston the ground was again covered in broken nutshells. In Europe too, the Sugar Plum fairy marched from Manchester to London, and from Berlin to Gothenburg.

Born for the seasonal festivities in Imperial Russia in 1892, this two act ballet, libretto by Petipa, choreography by Lev Ivanov, has been pounced upon by countless choreographers both great and small not only because of Tchaikovsky's hauntingly beautiful score, but because it is a traditional Christmas work for all the family.

Ballet Lausanne pushes credibility to the limit with their Ode to Maurice Béjart, a sycophantic autobiography (with a Christmas tree on stage), but most other versions remain at least loosely connected to E. T. A. Hoffman's tale, even though Matthew Bourne puts his heroine into an orphanage, Schauffus dwells upon Tchaikovsky's personal tragedy and grief at his sister's death, and Mark Morris turns Clara into a silly empty-headed adolescent. John Neumeier moves further away from the original story; in his work, Marie's elder sister is a ballerina at the Théatre Marie de Saint Petersburg, and her godfather, 'Drosselmeyer' is Marius Petipa himself. Marie leaves childhood behind when she puts on her ballet shoes. Neumeier's poetical tribute to Petipa enchants.

'Enchantment' was the word used by the young Rudolf Nureyev to describe his first visit to a ballet in the late 1940's. In his autobiography* he recalls the soft lights, velvet seats and special atmosphere when the curtain rose on " a magic fairy-tale", far from his dull, poverty-stricken existence, and thus we find that the heroines and heroes of his productions frequently escape from their humdrum, suffocating or sordid surroundings by way of a dream. It is not for nothing that audiences will queue for hours to see his productions, knowing they will emerge uplifted, "up into the skies".*


He first danced the role of the Nutcracker Prince, in Vainonen's version, while still a student at the Leningrad Ballet school in February 1958. By the time he was in the company and dancing the prince again fifteen months later, he was probably well aware of the ballet's weak libretto, and lack of strong dramatic action, and the seeds were being sown for his own production, for the Swedish National Ballet in 1967.

Then, in collaboration with Nicholas Georgiadis, who had already designed his Swan Lake in Vienna in 1964, he modified The Nutcracker when he remounted it for the Royal Ballet, and again for the sparkling definitive version staged for the Paris Opéra Ballet in 1985, and immortalised on film a few years later.

Nureyev conceived the ballet , which takes place on Christmas Eve, as a young girl's dream, where Drosselmeyer, her godfather is transformed into a handsome prince to protect her from family and friends who menace her uneventful childhood. The toy soldiers and rats, which become bats with human heads, are figments of Clara's imagination, as is the Nutcracker doll, a sort of white Knight who chases them off before being transformed into the charming fairy-tale prince.

Nutcracker - Nureyev production

He takes her around the world, and she sees Chinese, Arab, Spanish and Russian dances performed, but all by people who have familiar faces; the guests around the Christmas tree. The work ends with one of the most sublime pas de deux in the history of the nineteenth century classics, set in the France of Marie-Antoinette.

Nutcracker - Nureyev  version

"We succeeded in getting rid of all that artificial cloying "sweetness", Georgiadis told me a few years ago in his Paris apartment, "and it wasn't easy because Rudolf wanted everything classical and theatrical. I had great trouble in getting him to agree to setting the ballet in 1905 instead of in the usual early Empire, and he told me he lost his sleep over it. We had a long fight before he accepted my new designs, and it was not so much the costumes, (although he objected I made the men in coat-tails look like waiters!) as the set. He said that it looked like a production of Chekov, which in a way it was. And because I wanted to bring in a Russian touch for him...... his heart was always with Petipa, I set the snowflake scene in the Imperial Palace in Saint-Petersburg".

"The other problem we had", added the designer, "was over the huge "monster heads" worn by the bats, which he thought the dancers might object to; he constantly had their welfare at heart."

Nutcracker - Nureyev  production

Elisabeth Maurin, the young ballerina who created the role of Clara in the 1988 film spoke to me of the joy of interpreting the heroine as a child, an adolescent, and a woman, adding that it was her favourite version.

"Rudolf modernised it so that other productions seem now old-fashioned ", she said. "The traditional Sugar Plum disappears to become the adult Clara which gives more depth to the character. The whole ballet goes much further than just dancing in the kingdom of Sweeties. I've danced other versions, and when I remain the childlike Clara, I feel very frustrated."

"The whole time it was being filmed, I felt as though I was living out a dream", recalled Maurin". I can see it all now; the joy of being directed by Nureyev, and my happiness when he nominated me étoile the day before filming was completed. Then, I danced with Laurent Hilaire, but this Christmas I was partnered by Benjamin Pech, who danced the prince for the first time. Benjamin was one of the children in the film!"


After making a remarkable debut with "The Nutcracker" at the Palais Garnier in 1996, Viktor Fedotov was invited back to conduct the Orchestre de l'Opéra National de Paris for all performances. Fedotov, an expressive, elegant and attentive conductor was appointed Principal Conductor of the Kirov, now the Mariinski Theatre, in 1963.

Video: The Nutcracker, music Tchaikovsky, produced and choreographed by Rudolf Nureyev, after Petipa and Ivanov is available on film, with the Paris Opéra ballet and Elisabeth Maurin and Laurent Hilaire in the starring roles.
N V C Arts 1988 Teldec Video 1991
Teldec Classics International

* "Nureyev. His Spectacular Early Years" Hodder and Stoughton. An autobiography by Rudolf Nureyev edited by Alexander Bland 1962. Reissued 1993

Photos : ICARE / Moatti

Patricia Boccadoro writes on dance in Europe. She contributes to The Guardian, The Observer and Dancing Times and was dance consultant to the BBC Omnibus documentary on Rudolf Nureyev. Ms. Boccadoro is the dance editor for

Related articles: Rudolf Nureyev's own story with The Bayadère

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