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Vail Dance Festival Vol 2. No. 2 - The Nutcracker Pas de Deux

Updated: Mar 31

Three Balanchine Duets*

Part 2

*commissioned for the Vail Dance Festival

This week, Vail’s International Evenings of Dance performances return with three different jam-packed programs. These unique performances include excerpts from full-length ballets. When performed outside of the context of the story, the excerpts are vibrant displays of technique and personalities, but may leave you wondering where they came from and what the all mean. Each of the three programs includes a Balanchine duet that comes from a story ballet. What follows is an explanation of the significance of each pas de deux within the framework of the ballet from which it comes.

Tallchief & Magallanes

Nutcracker Grand Pas de Deux

Premiere: 1954

The plot of the Nutcracker is known well enough  that it doesn’t need a protracted synopsis here. Act I features the Christmas party at the Stahlbaum’s house where Marie receives the gift of a Nutcracker from her godfather, Herr Drosselmayer. After the party, Marie falls asleep and fantastic things begin to occur. The Christmas tree grows to great heights (or has Marie shrunk down to the size of the mice and toy soldiers that battle?), her Nutcracker is transformed into a prince, and the two are transported through a snowy forest to the Land of Sweets.

Tallchief, Rusty Nickel, Alberta Grant

In the original 1892 libretto, written by Ivan Vsevolozhsky and Marius Petipa, this magical land is called Confituremburg and the young heroine and the Nutcracker Prince are welcomed by the benevolent leader, the Sugar Plum Fairy, and Prince Coqueluche. (Balanchine explained, "'coqueluche' means whooping cough. I think Prince Coqueluche was supposed to represent a lozenge or cough drop. But that wasn’t very clear, so in our production [...] the Sugar Plum Fairy dances with a cavalier.”)(1)

It is often assumed by audiences (and even staged as such in different productions) that all the magical happenings are Marie’s dream. However, it was not originally staged this way, and Balanchine said, “Actually, it’s not a dream—it’s the reality that [Marie’s] Mother didn’t believe. The story written by [E.T.A] Hoffman was against society. He said that society, the grown-ups, had no real imagination and that they try to suppress the imagination of children.” (2) So the next time you see the Nutcracker, try to look at it as the beauty of a child’s reality rather than impossible phenomena.

Perhaps my favorite thing I’ve ever read about the Nutcracker  is how Tchaikovsky’s life is reflected in the music he wrote for it. What I’m about to explain is a matter of educated opinion, and was never personally confirmed by Tchaikovsky. However, I’m inclined to believe it because when I view the Nutcracker—specifically the pas de deux—through this lens, it adds a weight and emotional significance to the ballet.

Musicologist Roland John Wiley asserts that when Tchaikovsky was writing the music for the Nutcracker, he injected his own experiences and feelings into the story of the libretto. (3) To give you a much condensed account of events: After completing the music for Act I, Tchaikovsky’s sister, Alexandra, died while he was out of the country. He loved his sister very much and was crushed by this news. Tchaikovsky was very close with Alexandra and her daughter–his niece. Wiley suggests that Tchaikovsky identified himself with the character Drosselmeyer who had a special love for his goddaughter Marie. 

Tallchief & Alberta Grant

While mourning the loss of his sister, Tchaikovsky returned to writing the Act II of the Nutcracker. Wiley believes that the Sugar Plum Fairy came to represent Alexandra in Tchaikovksy’s mind and that the tragic quality of pas de deux music reflects Tchaikovsky’s anguish over her death. It is even more heartbreaking when you realize that although Drosselmayer is the initial instigator of magic in the ballet who sends Marie on this adventure, he and the Sugar Plum Fairy never meet and are in fact separated entirely by the intermission between both acts. Just like Tchaikovsky and his sister after her passing, Drosselmeyer and the Sugar Plum Fairy existed on different planes.

Former New York City Ballet principal, Robert Weiss, described Balanchine’s Nutcracker pas de deux:

"Dance on this level is intellect without words. Tchaikovsky’s music for the adagio is tragic in some high sense that transcends tragedy. Balanchine expresses it in the choreography, and it’s pure genius. There’s a certain moment in that pas de deux where, within the pathos of the music, the choreography allows sadness and happiness to intermingle. The border is crossed in some spiritual sense. It transports you to a place no other art can take you to.” (4)

These ideas of reality-versus-fantasy and life-versus-death give the audience much to ponder when comparing the first and second acts of the Nutcracker.


  1. Reynolds, Nancy. 1977. Repertory in Review: 40 Years of the New York City Ballet. New York: Dial Press.

  2. Wiley, Roland J. "On Meaning in 'Nutcracker'." Dance Research: The Journal of the Society for Dance Research 3, no. 1 (1985): 3-28. Accessed July 31, 2023.

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