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Tuesday, December 31, 2019

A Nutcracker Christmas at Staatsburgh

This year the mansion was decorated for the holidays with a nutcracker theme.  Visitors walking through the house heard the lovely strains of the famous musical score as they admired the decorations and collection of various sized nutcrackers.  Not only are nutcrackers a popular Christmas decoration, the score from The Nutcracker ballet, composed by Peter Tchaikovsky in 1892 has a lasting association with the Christmas season.  The ballet is performed every year in cities large and small around the world.  Many productions continue to be set in the late 19th century and depict a world similar to the American Gilded Age (at least during the party scene before the fantasy elements begin).

Nutcrackers grace the mantel in Staatsburgh's dining room, Christmas 2019

The first staging of The Nutcracker ballet was a two act ballet originally based on the story The Nutcracker and the Mouse King by E.T.A. Hoffmann.  Hoffmann, a German, originally wrote the story in 1816, and in the story, a young girl's Christmas toy comes alive and whisks her off to a fantasy world.  In 1844, the story was retold by renowned French writer, Alexandre Dumas, and the ballet was primarily based on this version.

The original production of The Nutcracker, 1892

The ballet was originally choreographed by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov and first performed at the Imperial Mariinsky Theater in Saint Petersburg, Russia in December 1892.  There were many roles for children and they were all performed by actual children, which was not the case in later years.  Unfortunately, the original performance was not a success and critics were not overly favorable.

The Imperial Mariinsky Theater in Saint Petersburg, Russia

Another staging of the ballet in 1919 by choreographer Alexander Gorsky proved moderately more successful that the 1892 premiere.  He also used adults instead of children to play the role of Clara and the Nutcracker, which turned their relationship into more of a romance than a friendship.  The ballet was not popular in the United States until 1954, when George Ballanchine choreographed and staged the ballet for the New York City Ballet.  It is unlikely the Mills family would have seen the ballet, but the setting of the story usually depicts the era when the Mills were living and celebrating Christmas.

The original sketch for The Nutcracker's set in 1892.

The Nutcracker has a long standing place in popular culture.  When I think of 'A Nutcracker Christmas,' my first thought is of the television show The Office.  In one of the Christmas episodes, the rather uptight head of the party planning committee chooses nutcrackers as the theme of the office's Christmas party.  However, a rival party planning committee emerges and plans a party with karaoke and alcohol.  The Nutcracker Christmas party with its actual nutcrackers, tinny strains of the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, and perfectly designed baked goods are no match for a party that is FUN.  Yet The Nutcracker and its themes are not stale and old fashioned.  The story is alive, it a lucid dream for viewers full of imagination and fantasy.  In 2018, the story was yet again re-imagined for the film, The Nutcracker & the Four Realms.  And in 2019, the theme was happily borrowed at Staatsburgh to delight both children and adults throughout the holiday season.

Note Angela's nutcracker pin as she proudly presents her disastrous party, 'A Nutcracker Christmas'.

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