Discover the Many Roles in Tchaikovsky's "The Nutcracker"

New York City Ballet Performs Nutcracker Suite
Kelly/Mooney Photography / Getty Images

With its colorful costumes, dreamlike score, and memorable roles, "The Nutcracker" ballet is a Christmas classic. This fantastic tale of a toy soldier come to life has been delighting audiences for more than 125 years. For many youngsters, it is also their first introduction to the world of classical music and ballet.

Background

"The Nutcracker" ballet was first performed in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1892.

Its score was composed by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and the performance choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov, three of Russia's greatest artists of their era. The ballet was inspired by "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King," published in 1815 by the German author E.T.A. Hoffmann, who based the work on a similar story by Alexandre Dumas. Tchaikovsky's "The Nutcracker Suite, Op. 71," as the complete score is known, consists of eight movements, including the memorable dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy and the march of the Wooden Soldiers.

Synopsis

To set the scene, a young girl named Clara is hosting a holiday party with her family, including her brother Fritz. Clara's Uncle Drosselmeyer, who is also her godfather, appears late to the party, but to the delight of the children brings gifts for them. He introduces entertainment for the guests including three windup dolls, a ballerina doll, a harlequin and a soldier doll.

He then presents Clara with a toy nutcracker which Fritz promptly breaks during a fit of jealousy. Uncle Drosselmeyer magically repairs the doll to Clara's delight.

Later that night, Clara looks for her toy under the Christmas tree. When she finds it, she begins to dream. Mice begin to fill the room and the Christmas tree begins to grow.

The Nutcracker magically grows to life-size.

Enter the Mouse King, who the Nutcracker fights with swords. After the Nutcracker defeats the king, he transforms into a handsome prince. Clara travels with the prince to a place called the Land of the Sweets, where they encounter many new friends, including the Sugar Plum Fairy.

The friends entertain Clara and the prince with sweets from around the world including chocolate from Spain, coffee from Arabia, tea from China, and candy canes from Russia, which all dance for their amusement. Danish shepherdesses perform on their flutes, Mother Ginger and her children appear, a group of beautiful flowers perform a waltz and the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier perform a dance together.

Cast of Characters

The diversity of the cast allows ballet dancers and some non-dancers of all ages the opportunity to participate in the ballet. The Nutcracker is a favorite of many ballet companies because of the number of roles that can be cast. Even though the dancing may be minimal for a few of the roles, dancers of different levels can be cast together. 

The following list of characters, in order of appearance, varies slightly among ballet companies. Although the overall storyline generally remains the same, directors and choreographers sometimes tweak the cast according to the specific needs of their dance company.

Act 1

The first act encompasses the Christmas party, the mice battle scene and the journey on the way to the Land of the Sweets through the Land of Snow.

  • Mr. Stahlbaum, the town mayor
  • Mrs. Stahlbaum, the mayor's wife
  • Party guests, family, and friends
  • Clara and Fritz, the Stahlbaum children
  • Uncle Drosselmeyer, godfather of Clara and Fritz
  • Mechanical dolls, harlequin, and soldier
  • Owl, changing into Drosselmeyer
  • Mice
  • Hare-drummers
  • Nutcracker
  • Soldiers of the Nutcracker
  • Mouse King
  • Gnomes, with torches
  • Cavelier, Nutcracker Prince
  • Snowflakes
  • Snow Queen

Act Two

The second act is set primarily in the Land of the Sweets and culminates with Clara back at home.

  • Sugar Plum Fairy
  • Clara
  • Cavalier, prince
  • Pages 
  • Spanish dancers
  • Arab dancers
  • Chinese dancers
  • Russian dancers
  • Shepherdess
  • Mirliton dancers, reed-flutes
  • Mother Ginger
  • Buffoons
  • Dew Drop Fairy
  • Rosebuds
  • Flowers

Memorable Performances

Although popular at the time of its debut, "The Nutcracker" did not become well known in the U.S. until the San Francisco Ballet began performing it on an annual basis in 1944. Other well-known versions include George Balanchine's performance with the New York City Ballet beginning in 1954. Other famous dancers who have performed include Rudolf Nureyev, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and Mark Morris.