The sweets of The Nutcracker

25 September 2014 | By Caitlyn Lehmann

The Nutcracker is the Christmas ballet that everyone knows and loves. But it’s also the ultimate foodie’s ballet. Its fantastical second act – a confetti of divertissements – is a homage in dance to the 19th century’s most precious foodstuffs. Today, those divertissements may seem random, but look a little closer and you’ll find they’re united by a whimsical, rather scrummy theatrical plan.

Long before the days of supermarkets and café bars, the creative team behind The Nutcracker had a fondness for the same victuals as we do. Imagine Lev Ivanov hankering for his morning coffee, Piotr Tchaikovsky balancing a cup of tea, and Marius Petipa scraping a little chocolate into a saucepan of warm milk. Conjure, if you will, an image of the first Sugar Plum Fairy, the Italian ballerina Antonietta dell’Era, rummaging for a sugary cough drop.

Just at that moment her Prince Coqueluche wanders into the rehearsal studio …

Forget cheap imports, plastic wrap and barcodes. This was the age when great wooden chests of tea swung over the bows of ships from China, when the aroma of coffee evoked dreams of Arabia, when candies were bestowed on only the most fortunate of Russian children at Christmas time. In 1892, when The Nutcracker premiered and the curtain lifted on the Kingdom of the Sweets, these were some of the gastronomic wonders that the Imperial Ballet brought to life.

Inspired by Hoffmann’s tale, the Kingdom of the Sweets was formed as a lusty representation of the toys and treats that every affluent St Petersburg family knew and loved. Food was the theme that the divertissements brought to life, beginning with the Spanish “chocolate” dance, which recalled the introduction of chocolate beans to Europe following the Spanish Conquest in South America. The sultry strains of the Arabian dance follow, evoking the warmth of the Middle East, where coffee was cultivated for centuries. Tea – represented by the sprightly Chinese dance – was traditionally the most recognisable victual in the ballet, and several choreographers incorporated tea-drinking gestures or even gigantic teapots into the variation.

Charles Thompson, Benedicte Bemet and Rohan Furnell in Sir Peter Wright’s The Nutcracker. Photography Jeff Busby

Interrupting the banquet was originally a buffons or jesters dance (set to the stirring Russian trepak) and the Dance of the Mirlitons, with its delightful scoring for flutes. And well you may ask, what is a mirliton? Are those stripy sticks grasped by the dancers meant to be candy canes? Or are they some kind of reed pipe? Confusingly, a mirliton is both a small sweet French cake and a type of musical instrument that produces “a coarse, reedy sound.” (It’s also another name for the vegetable that in Australia we call a choko!) Actually, it was the popular toy instrument that the ballet’s creators originally had in mind, though at an early stage, according to author Robert Greskovic, Marius Petipa considered identifying the number with “cream pastries”.

Seen less often nowadays is the first sweets divertissement, featuring Mother Ginger (Mere Gigogne) and her clutch of playful Polichinelles. A character with roots in the commedia dell’arte, Mother Ginger usually appears in a comically oversize skirt from under which young children emerge to dance the part of the Polichinelle candies. The divertissement took inspiration from a well-known candy tin that sold in Russia in the 1890s, formed in the shape of a woman wearing a large skirt. Naturally, the tin opened at the bottom to reveal the bonbons inside.

Mirlitons: Eloise Fryer and Jill Ogai in Sir Peter Wright’s The Nutcracker. Photography Jeff Busby

Finally, following Tchaikovsky’s famous Waltz of the Flowers, the Sugar Plum Fairy makes her eagerly awaited appearance. This fairy is no glorified prune. The true sugar plum of yesteryear has more in common with today’s M&M or Smartie. The rounded sweets were a confectioner’s pièce de résistance,consisting of layers of sugar syrup skilfully hardened around a caraway or cardamom seed, or an almond. Confectionary historians have described the process as one of the most difficult and tedious to master – not for nothing does ‘plum’ mean all manner of good things.

Amber Scott as the Sugar Plum Fairy. Photography Lynette Wills

This is also the moment of the Sugar Plum Fairy’s companion, gallant Prince Coqueluche. His name translated literally as “whooping cough”, but was understood to mean a lozenge or cough drop. Pavel Gerdt, the Imperial Ballet’s leading male artist, danced the role at the premiere. But Prince Coqueluche has since sunk into obscurity, becoming an anonymous cavalier, overshadowed by his celeste-tickling ballerina. Yet, what a sweet partnership they surely made, the Cough Drop and the Sugar Plum!

Kevin Jackson in Peter Wright’s The Nutcracker. Photography Jeff Busby

One child who succumbed to the delights of this delectable cavalcade was a young George Balanchine, who danced in The Nutcracker as a student at the Imperial Ballet School. Like so many of his contemporaries, Balanchine grew to appreciate the miracle of sugar. In the heart of St Petersburg stood Eliseyevsky’s emporium, which dazzled the little Balanchivadze with its great high windows, its palace-like halls and opulent chandeliers. It boasted “sweets and fruits from all over the world, like in A Thousand and One Nights,” Balanchine remembered. “I used to walk past and look in the windows often. I couldn’t buy anything there, it was too expensive.”

Two World Wars and a revolution later, he also bore memories of the horrors of starvation. Along with fellow Russian choreographer David Lichine, Balanchine would go on to create his own fabulous, mouth-watering vision of The Nutcracker. His 1955 production for the New York City Ballet replaced the mirlitons with marzipan shepherdesses and turned the buffons into candy cane. In 1958, Lichine, choreographing for London’s Festival Ballet (now English National Ballet) conjured roses atop a Christmas cake for the Waltz of the Flowers, and an interlude for children dressed as little cooks and waitresses.

The Nutcracker has since become a journey into all kinds of magical places, revealing ever-changing dreamscapes filled with angels, puppet theatres, icy vistas, garden bugs, glass coaches, hot air balloons and even Fabergé eggs. The Dutch National Ballet currently sets its second act of The Nutcracker inside a magic lantern (an early form of projector). The Australian Ballet’s production, by Peter Wright, sports a flying goose!

The food theme is still celebrated too, perhaps most memorably in Matthew Bourne’s subversive Nutcracker! of 1992, with a cast that included Queen Candy, Prince Bon-Bon, King Sherbet, Marshmallow Girls and a trio of yobbish Gobstoppers.

So how do you like your Nutcracker? Sweet or savoury? With lashings of whipped cream or pinnacles of glittering sugar? Clouds of fairy floss or archways of fairy bread? Let your mind go a-feasting on the treats of all seasons. It’s our own Magic Pudding: Nutcracker, the gift that keeps giving!