Viewing Guide: The Nutcracker

by Caroline Dickie

Let Us Be Your Guide

Colourful, innovative and full of brilliant dancing, James Kudelka’s The Nutcracker has been lighting up the holiday season since 1995. Can’t decide where to look first? Let us be your guide! Read on for some fun and interesting facts about this spectacular production.


Arianna Barillas, Jack Bertinshaw and Mathew Skradski. Photo by Karolina Kuras.

A New Twist on a Holiday Classic
Marius Petipa choreographed the original Nutcracker ballet in 1892 based on an adaptation of E.T.A Hoffmann’s story, The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. Kudelka imagines the story in a new way, moving the setting from Germany to 19th century Russia and adding drama, dancing and spectacle to rival a large Broadway show. There are two children at its centre – warring siblings Marie and Misha – whose journey to the kingdom of the Sugar Plum Fairy is a coming-of-age that brings friendship and self-knowledge along with the usual treats.

Watch For: Marie and Misha arguing at the holiday party and then gradually starting to cooperate as they battle the Mouse Tsar.

Fun Fact: The Nutcracker features 11 different backdrops to evoke the Russian setting, along with Cossack costumes, onion domes, a samovar and a traditional Russian feast.


Harrison James and Koto Ishihara. Photo by Karolina Kuras.

Larger Than Life
The Nutcracker was designed to an enormous scale by Santo Loquasto with lighting by Jennifer Tipton. It was the first ballet in The National Ballet of Canada repertoire to have computer-automated scenery and, even today, the Sugar Plum Fairy’s 25-foot FabergĂ© egg is one of the company’s largest set pieces.  

Watch For: The Christmas tree growing at midnight. At its largest, the tree is 20 feet wide with over 700 handmade ornaments.

Fun Fact: The Nutcracker shares a technical trick with the Toronto production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera. The remote-controlled ice boat in the Land of Snow is modelled on the one the Phantom uses to guide Christine to his lair.


Artists of the Ballet. Photo by Karolina Kuras.

It’s Winter!
The Nutcracker may be a holiday ballet but winter weather doesn’t usually make an appearance until the blustery snow scene at the end of Act I. Traditionally, the opening party takes place indoors with guests in formal attire. But Kudelka takes the party outside, to a barn in rural Russia, where winter is all part of the fun.

Watch For: Children throwing snowballs, pulling sleds and dancing in warm woolen coats and scarves as Uncle Nikolai arrives in a dramatic fur-lined coat and hat.

Fun Fact: The setting for the holiday party may be a reference to Kudelka’s childhood home on a farm in Newmarket, Ontario.


Artists of the Ballet. Photo by Karolina Kuras.

Animal Magic
Kudelka makes abundant use of animals in his production, often showcasing them in place of toys as a source of wonder and delight. They include puppet chickens, remote-controlled rats, shimmering Unicorns, Dogs, Cats, a life-sized Horse and two furry Bears, one of them on rollerblades! He even added a Bee to the famous Waltz of the Flowers.

Watch For: The Goat and Rooster who pop out from the top of the children’s beds during the battle scene.

Fun Fact: In ancient legend, animals can speak on Christmas Eve, prompting some families to mark the holidays with them.

The Score
Few classical scores are more recognizable than Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, which was scored for a large orchestra and incorporates children’s toys for the holiday party and a youth chorus for the Land of Snow. Tchaikovsky also composed the music for two other of Petipa’s great classical works, Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty.

Listen For: The twinkling sound of the Sugar Plum Fairy’s solo. The sound is made by an instrument called the celesta and Tchaikovsky was one of the first composers to use it.

Fun Fact: The Nutcracker is the most popular and well-known ballet in the world and the music is synonymous with Christmas time. However, the score was not well-received initially and Tchaikovsky himself never saw the great success his work would become.

The Nutcracker  is onstage December 8 – 30, 2023.

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