Christmas Destinations

George Balanchine's The Nutcracker at New York City Ballet

The stage production of George Balanchine's The Nutcracker at New York City Ballet is an iconic holiday tradition sure to get anyone in the Christmas Spirit!

by | August 3, 2022

Still from NYCB The Nutcracker Stage Production from New York City Ballet showing traditional Ballet Presentation

For over a century now, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker ballet has been a much-beloved holiday staple. Every year, families all over the world delight in at least one of its many productions to indulge their Christmas spirit. But, arguably, the most famous version belongs to New York City Ballet and its co-founder, George Balanchine.

Directed and choreographed by Balanchine himself, this production first debuted at City Center of Music and Drama in February of 1954. Since then, it has been performed every year except for 2020. Today’s audiences flock to the David Koch Theater at Lincoln center to catch one of 47 annual performances from late November to early January. In fact, it’s become so popular that many other ballet companies either imitate it or use the same staging and choreography.

Still from NYCB The Nutcracker Stage Production from New York City Ballet showing large cast and child actors

The Story Of The Nutcracker

Based on an 1816 short story by E.T.A. Hoffman, The Nutcracker centers around a young girl named Marie Stahlbaum. During her family’s Christmas Eve celebration, she is visited by her mysterious godfather, Drosselmeyer, who gifts her with a nutcracker. Hours after everyone has left, Marie wakes up in the middle of the night to find a swarm of mice overtaking her house. Suddenly, her new nutcracker comes to life and defeats the Mouse King. He then turns into a handsome prince and takes Marie off to the magical realm: the Kingdom of the Sugarplum Fairy. For the entire second act, the two are treated like royalty as many delights from around the world, including Spanish hot chocolate and Russian candy canes, dance for them.

About the New York City Ballet

The New York City Ballet is an amalgamation of several older troupes in the area, including the American Ballet and Ballet Society. It was officially founded in 1948 by the Russian-born Balanchine and New York philanthropist Lincoln Kirstein. They were later joined by renowned Broadway choreographer Jerome Robbins and Belgian-born conductor Léon Barzin, who served as associate artistic director and music director respectively.

Today, NYCB is one of the leading dance companies in the world — with a set roster of accomplished dancers and musicians. Along with its many beloved productions that are brought back regularly, it also hosts many educational programs for both children and adults. Some of their most famous productions include Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, and the ballet version of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Yet even after many decades, their version of The Nutcracker continues to be their biggest draw year after year

Still from NYCB The Nutcracker Stage Production from New York City Ballet showing Mouse King Battle

NYCB Behind The Scenes  - Creating a Magical Production

Like any NYCB production, the entire ballet consists of hundreds of people both on stage and behind the scenes. This includes 90 adult dancers, 62 musicians, and at least 57 stagehands working on scene, lighting, and costume changes. It also features 126 child performers, all from the School of American Ballet, split into two different casts. While this method is standard for modern live shows, it also makes this one of the largest child casts out of any production in North America.

Along with Balanchine’s choreography, this production still features much of the same set and costume designs by Rouben Ter-Arutunian and Barbara Karinska respectively. NYCB even uses the same stage technology from 1954 to maintain that sense of magic and awe that’s made this version so well-loved. Some of its most iconic scenes include a Christmas tree growing up to 41 feet tall, the comedic Mother Ginger hiding eight children in her nine-foot-wide skirt, and a chorus of dancers performing amidst falling snow. They’re made from a special flame-retardant paper that’s swept up and reused for each show.

Even the details that you might not notice in all 150 costumes make a world of difference in each show. For example, Russian candy canes have 144 jingle bells attached to each of their outfits, making an already energetic dance number even more lively. The Sugarplum Fairy’s tutu is made with seven layers of tulle for extra dreaminess. And the Spanish hot chocolate dancers have cameo pictures of Kirstein and Balanchine sewn into their costumes, paying tribute to New York City Ballet’s founders every night.

Still from NYCB The Nutcracker Stage Production from New York City Ballet showing victory for Nutcracker and the Mouse King defeated

When Does NYCB Perform The Nutcracker At Lincoln Center?

Each year, the show opens just after Thanksgiving and runs through New Year’s Eve. With the amount of care and dedication that goes into every aspect of Balanchine’s The Nutcracker, it’s no surprise that tickets go so fast. And so do the dinner reservations at Lincoln Square neighborhood restaurants, so be sure to book early. The Elf Squad looks forward to this NYC tradition every year and can’t wait to go back this holiday season!

Photographs by Paul Kolnick, courtesy of NYCB