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Hard nuts?
The Phoenix’s first annual Nutcracker quiz

Time for the Phoenix’s annual Nutcracker quiz. Actually, this would be our first annual Nutcracker quiz, but with Boston’s favorite holiday tradition fighting for its life, there’s no time like the present to get started.

(1) When and where did Tchaikovsky’s ballet have its world premiere?

(2) What was the critical and public reaction?

(3) Who was the first Sugar Plum Fairy?

(4) What was the special instrument that Tchaikovsky had brought from Paris?

(5) When and where was The Nutcracker first performed complete in America?

(6) When did it first hit movie screens?

(7) When did it first hit TV screens?

(8) What popular section is missing from the 1977 American Ballet Theatre production (and PBS holiday staple) with Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gelsey Kirkland?

(9) What well-known children’s-book author designed a Nutcracker?

(10) Why did Mark Morris in his 1991 version The Hard Nut choreograph a pas de deux for Drosselmeier and his nephew?

And here are the answers:

(1) If "where" seems too easy, remember that one of Tchaikovsky’s other most famous pieces, the B-flat-minor Piano Concerto, had its world premiere right here in Boston. The Nutcracker, however, premiered right where you’d expect, at the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg. It was scheduled for December 1891, but Tchaikovsky didn’t have an easy time writing a score to fit Marius Petipa’s scenario, and the production was postponed to December 1892, when it appeared as the second half of a bill with Tchaikovsky’s one-act opera Iolanthe.

(2) It received mixed reviews from the critics and enjoyed only modest popularity with St. Petersburg audiences.

(3) Antonietta Dell’Erba, of whom fellow dancer Nikolai Solyannikov wrote that the Petersburg press "came forward with enthusiastic reviews, favoring her with the epithets ‘light,’ ‘æthereal,’ ‘astounding,’ etc., not taking into account the dancer’s considerable weight."

(4) The celesta, a glockenspiel-like keyboard instrument that Tchaikovsky used most prominently in the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.

(5) Not until 1944, when William Christensen did it for San Francisco Ballet.

(6) Should we count the 1940 Fantasia? Why not? It isn’t complete, of course, but it introduced millions of Americans to The Nutcracker and made them more receptive to the real thing.

(7) In 1954, George Balanchine choreographed a Nutcracker for New York City Ballet; it was televised live on Christmas Night in 1957 and 1958, with Balanchine himself playing Drosselmeier.

(8) Coffee, a/k/a the Arabian dance. PBS aired the performance in a 90-minute time slot, and since the ballet runs 85 minutes, and some time had to be reserved for corporate-sponsor thank-yous and PBS programming promotion and an introduction, it wasn’t possible to present the ABT Nutcracker uncut. Boasting some of the most sinuous music Tchaikovsky ever wrote, Coffee nonetheless seems an odd choice for omission.

(9) Maurice Sendak, for the 1983 Pacific Northwest Ballet production. Sendak also illustrated Ralph Manheim’s translation of the source for The Nutcracker, E.T.A. Hoffmann’s novella Nußknacker und Mausekönig ("Nutcracker and Mouse King").

(10) Over the last few years of his life, Tchaikovsky had become attracted to his nephew Vladimir "Bob" Davydov, to whom he dedicated the Pathétique Symphony. In Hoffmann’s novella, the Nutcracker is Drosselmeier’s nephew in enchanted form; Marie’s love for him breaks the Mouse Queen’s spell. Neither the libretto for the original St. Petersburg production nor Petipa’s scenario makes mention of Drosselmeier’s nephew. Did Tchaikovsky realize that, in one important sense, The Nutcracker is about an uncle and his beloved nephew? Would he have written The Nutcracker differently if he had?

Boston Ballet opens its 2003 presentation of The Nutcracker this Friday, November 28, at the Wang Theatre, 270 Tremont Street in the Theater District. The production runs through December 30, and tickets are $19 to $77; call (800) 447-7400.

Issue Date: November 28 - December 4, 2003
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