Snow is falling outside the Stahlbaum residence, where inside the last preparations for the Christmas eve party are keeping everyone busy. The family has been banished to the library to wait out the final hour before the party. The magician Count Drosselmeyer is taking a final look at the girl Clara, who he hopes will save his nephew from the spell of imprisonment as a Nutcracker. A battle must be waged with the evil mouse king, Ratsputtle, if his nephew is to regain his form.
Clara and her brother, Fritz, would dearly love a peek at the Grand Hall, but are unsuccessful, as their mother and staff fleet in and out.
Finally the moment arrives, the doors fling open, and the party begins. As Clara arrives, time stands still. What beauty and magic are in the air, what possibilities this blessed night promises. Parents and children dance, feast and make merry until the arrival of a most special guest. The part come to a momentary pause as Mademoiselle Chessinskya, the famous Russian ballerina, arrives with her partner, Dimitrikov. The glamorous ballerina graciously agrees to perform, and the guests, especially Clara, are enchanted.
When the entertainment finishes, the festivities resume, only to be cut short by the arrival of the absurd Count Drosselmeyer. Crazy beyond anyone's comprehension, Drosselmeyer entertains all, and gives Clara and Fritz an unusual present. From nowhere he produces an amusing, life-size clown doll, to the delight and astonishment of all. Fritz is unimpressed with the ugly wooden soldier from Drosselmeyer, but Clara falls immediately in love.
Drosselmeyer makes clear to all that the doll is a Nutcracker, and Fritz become jealous of the attention Clara is receiving and grabs the doll back. The ensuing fight sends the doll tumbling to the floor.
Clara ties her ribbon as a bandage around the Nutcracker, and Drosselmeyer assures her that all is well. The party lingers to its end, and the family seek out their long winter nap. Clara places her Nutcracker amongst her other dolls and reluctantly steals herself to bed.
As all is still, Drosselmeyer sneaks back into the room and removes the Nutcracker to the Grand Hall. It is just in time, as the evil mouse king Ratsputtle appears, looking for the doll.
Clara, aroused from her sleep, seeks out her Nutcracker and discovers the shelf empty. Mice as large as she is scamper about, stealing her toys, and when she runs away she discovers that the Grand Hall is expanding to monstrous sizes. Mice are running everywhere, but to Clara's astonishment, her Nutcracker has become life-size. The horrible Ratsputtle enters, declaring war, while the Nutcracker summons his troops. Fighting is fierce; the Nutcracker goes down, but in the nick of time Clara throws her slipper, and the mouse king is defeated. The Nutcracker seems to have disappeared, but Drosselmeyer encourages Clara to lift up her eyes. To her wonder, the most handsome of young men stands before her. The two are so mesmerized by each other that they fail to observe that they are in the midst of whirling snow maidens. Drosselmeyer reappears, and as the curtain descends, Clara and the Prince ascend into the starry sky.
The wondrous journey continues as Clara and her Prince frolic amidst the stars. The couple are interrupted once more by Drosselmeyer, who is traveling amongst beautiful Spanish dancers. He really is too old for this; he peels back the sky to reveal the heat of the desert sand. Clara stares in awe at the beautiful Arabian Princess and her entourage, but the desert sands are soon blown away by the antics of three Russian Cossacks. Giant peacock wings reveal a field of dancing flowers, and all are delighted as a group of clowns tumble and frolic out of nowhere. But all joy appears to be cut short when two fighting Chinese warriors are chased by ferocious dragons. Fortunately, to Clara's and Drosselmeyer's delight, these dragons are tame. As Clara, ready to burst with joy, thinks there could be no greater wonder, out from the glowing fan steps the most beautiful Fairy. She resembles Mademoiselle Chessinskya, but her dance is so magnificent that Clara is embarrassed when her Prince asks her to dance.
The night seems endless, but Clara wakes to find herself back in the library in the arms of her father. She desperately tries to explain the wonders of her journey. As sleep calls her father back to his bed, Drosselmeyer appears with his nephew. The Prince gives Clara a new Nutcracker, and as she embraces her lovingly restored doll, the curtain descends on this part of our tale.
Variations of The Nutcracker have been seen - and loved - by people all over the world, but typically, former BalletMet Columbus Artistic Director David Nixon says, only the story action in Act One held the attention of young spectators. Many kids are unable to appreciate the subtlety of the traditional second act's celebratory dances and divertissements.
For his 2001 restaging. he resolved that Act Two would include the elements of action, spectacle, novelty and variety that entertain youngsters - while retaining the virtuoso ballet pieces that adult fans savor.
In 1995, Nixon had rechoreographed BalletMet Columbus' The Nutcracker to expand the narrative and to continue the story into the second act, which he infused with dramatic interest by creating a battle in the "mouse hole," the lair of the Mouse King, Ratsputtle, and his army. For his new 2001 Nutcracker, the choreographer wanted to assure that production could keep ballet-goers, young and older, involved, he says, pointing out that about 40,000 people see BalletMet Columbus' The Nutcracker each year. "It's much more 'action-packed' and entertaining - especially for children," Nixon says.
The story begins on Christmas Eve long ago, in the late 1890s. Nixon planned "a more elegant Victorian first act, with all the men dressed in period tailcoats, and the women in exquisite gowns - suitable for a special holiday party," he says, "while the kids' clothes are less stiff, to allow them to play and have a good time at a party." The servants' preparations for the Stahlbaums' party reflect the demands of the Victorian-era home, he says, with a considerable bustle of activity as the domestic staff cleans and decorates, readying the house for visitors - and with lively interaction among the children and dancing by the adult guests. Many versions of The Nutcracker have the guests just "milling about and looking happy," Nixon says. In his 2001 production, all of the dancers portray fully realized characters, and most of the movement and interaction is directed and choreographed.
Nixon's restaging "started out as a facelift," he says, grinning, "and then there were some nips and tucks - and, finally, just a major overhaul!"
Central to the story, of course, is the mysterious party guest Herr Drosselmeyer. Nixon sees the puckish character as "somewhere between the flamboyant Liberace, the professor from 'Back to the Future' and Dr. Coppélius." The magician is clever enough to suspend time at the party, yet peculiar enough to forget - almost! - to turn time back on.
The new Nixon choreography pays homage to the era of Russian imperial ballet and its flowing Classical style - much softer, even for the men, the choreographer says, than today's more muscular, decisive movement. The pas de deux performed by the Stahlbaums' ballet-star party guests, for example, alludes to both Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty. And while "Dimitrikov" is a bantering reference to BalletMet Columbus' own Bolshoi-trained Dimitri Suslov (who smiles at the mention), Mlle. Chessinskya, a ballet historian might observe, certainly resembles Mathilda Kchessinskaya (1872-1971). The renowned Russian dancer and teacher studied in St. Petersburg with Lev Ivanov (who completed Marius Petipa's choreography for the very first The Nutcracker in 1892, after Petipa became ill) and with Enrico Cecchetti, one of ballet's greatest teachers.
After Clara saves the day by throwing her slipper, Drosselmeyer, Clara and her young Prince are whisked to the stars by sleigh (a favorite image Nixon retains from his own childhood discovery of The Nutcracker) as Act One ends.
How to update Act Two of The Nutcracker? Who today actually has "visions of sugarplums" - or even knows what one would look like? And Nixon didn't want a "land of sweets" scene incorporating huge Snickers, and Hershey bars, M&Ms, PopTarts and Popsicles. Instead, he devised changeable settings for multiple fantasies, pleasantly shifting dreams, in contrast to the Stahlbaums' cozy hearth. "The second act looks quite different," he says. "There are more Flowers, and their 'Waltz' is more vigorous; there are more children; and the 'battle' scene is bigger." The battle with the mice has 35 persons on stage, and almost all of the Company of 28 dancers, plus a dozen children, are involved in the finale.
All's well that ends well, and David Nixon's The Nutcracker does: Clara finds herself at home with a fully restored nutcracker.