Alexandra Fedorova, Alexandre Benois, Alicia Markova, Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, Ben Stevenson, Boston Ballet, Boston Opera House, George Balanchine, Houson Ballet, Lev Ivanov, Marius Petipa, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Mikko Nissinen, Milorad Miskovitch, Nichlai Legat, Nicholas Sergeyev, Piotr Tchaikovsky, Sugar Plum Fairy, The first Nutcracker, Your Show of Shows
Alicia Markova had a career filled with firsts: the first British-born – and first Jewish – prima ballerina assoluta, the first to appear on television (in 1932!), the first self-managed “freelance” prima ballerina, and the first to appear on stage in just a leotard without a tutu – quite a scandal in 1925!
But one of Markova’s most charming firsts was introducing England and America to a now-ubiquitous holiday role: The Nutcracker’s Sugar Plum Fairy. In fact, Markova starred in the first-ever full-length Nutcracker outside of Russia, which was presented in London in 1934. As British dance historian and critic P.W. Manchester wrote,
“To most of us, [Markova] was, is, and always will be the one and only Sugar Plum Fairy. She was brittle and sparkling, like the frosted icing on a Christmas cake. There was a crystalline purity in every movement, and she made the most beautiful adagio an unforgettable experience.”
In 1940, Markova would also become America’s first Sugar Plum Fairy, but more about that shortly. How Markova came to master the original 1892 choreography is quite a story in itself, and it begins with a man who would become infamous in Russian ballet circles: Nicholas Sergeyev (1876-1951).
Sergeyev joined the Imperial Ballet in 1894, two years after The Nutcracker (Casse Noisette) premiered at the Maryinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg.
Set to an enchanting score by Piotr Tchaikovsky, The Nutcracker was a shared choreographic effort by the company’s Premier Maître de Ballet Marius Petipa, and his talented assistant Ballet Master Lev Ivanov (who took over when Petipa became ill). The ballet was not initially popular, falling far short of the success of the Petipa/Tchaikovsky classics The Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake (the latter also with contributions by Ivanov), and Petipa’s magnificent reimagining of the French romantic ballet Giselle (Markova’s signature role).
To preserve the choreography of all those time-honored works (and countless others), the Imperial Ballet undertook a 20-year documentation project painstakingly executed by a variety of ballet masters. Their detailed notations contained analysis and deconstruction of every step and movement in relation to the musical accompaniment. When finished, it was a virtual bible of Russian classical ballet. Sergeyev – first a dancer, then a soloist, and finally régisseur-général (chief stage manager) at the company – supervised the tail-end of the documentation. Due to his dictatorial manner, he was unpopular with the dancers, and later, the government. Following the Russian Revolution in 1917, Sergeyev would be forced to flee his homeland – but not before spiriting away the bulk of the invaluable choreographic material.
Needless to say this scandalous theft did not sit well with the Imperial Ballet (later the Maryinsky), causing as much outrage in Russian cultural circles as London’s plundering of the Elgin Marbles elicited in Greece. (FYI: Renamed “The Sergeyev Collection,” the historical ballet papers are now housed in the Harvard University Theatre Collection.)
While Sergeyev later found employment at Sergei Diaghilev’s grand Ballets Russes, by 1932 he was poor, unemployed, and living in exile in Paris. It was at this time that British balletomanes decided to form a homegrown company. Made aware of Sergeyev’s situation, they asked if he’d consider re-staging the famous Russian classics in London. Sergeyev happily complied and taught the original choreography of Giselle, The Nutcracker, and Swan Lake to the reigning star of the Sadler’s Wells Ballet (today’s Royal Ballet), Alicia Markova.
Markova’s Sugar Plum Fairy benefited from another master teacher as well: Nicholai Legat. The prolific choreographer and former Imperial Ballet dancer had starred in the Russian premiere of the Nutcracker in 1892. As he was living in London, Legat agreed to give Markova private lessons in mastering the extremely difficult original classical variations in the last act. “Some of us would call it a ‘killer’ under our breath,” Markova explained. “There are certain steps in that, which today are never done in the last movement, such as a double gargouillade.”
By 1939, Markova was a star ballerina with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and performing throughout Europe and the United States. The following year, Alexandra Fedorova (a former Maryinsky dancer and the sister-in-law of famed choreographer Michel Fokine) was asked to choreograph a shortened version of the Petipa/Ivanov Nutcracker for American audiences. The sets and costumes were designed by Alexandre Benois, a former Ballets Russes favorite living in France. As the 14-year-old Markova had been the youngest-ever soloist at the Ballets Russes, she greatly enjoyed the reunion.
The Nutcracker premiered at the Boston Opera House in the fall of 1940, with Markova mesmerizing audiences as the country’s first Sugar Plum Fairy. As Jack Anderson explained in his entertaining book The One and Only: The Ballet Russe De Monte Carlo: “… the Ballet Russe Nutcracker was a truncated version capable of serving as one item on a mixed bill. A brief first scene showed the Christmas party, after which Clara fell asleep and . . . journeyed immediately to the snow country and the land of sweets. Yet this was the first Nutcracker most American balletgoers had ever seen and it was extremely popular on tour.”
While Markova’s Giselle was always a must-see night at the ballet, her Sugar Plum Fairy enchanted audiences throughout her entire lengthy career. In 1952, she performed the role for an audience of 30 million when she danced the snowflake scene on the hugely popular TV program Your Show of Shows, starring Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca. And the Sugar Plum Fairy was part of her repertoire the following year, when the 43-year-old bewitched audiences throughout Great Britain and Ireland partnered with the sensational Milorad Miskovitch (18 years her junior!).
In 1955, 18-year-old Ben Stevenson got the thrill of his young life performing scenes from The Nutcracker with Markova in London’s West End. After an illustrious dancing career in England (including stints at The English National Ballet and the Royal Ballet), Stevenson became a very successful choreographer and artistic director – a position he held at the Houston Ballet from 1976 to 2003. The talented Brit is credited with developing the small regional Texas troupe into an internationally acclaimed company. I had the pleasure of speaking at the wonderful Houston Ballet last week (thanks to the delightful Maxine Silberstein, Hilda Frank, and Chase Cobb) and meeting many of the marvelous dancers and students. This being November, the company is about to celebrate its 26th season performing Stevenson’s Nutcracker choreography, described in the press as “impeccably beautiful, alluring, and altogether magical from the opening to the close.”
Growing up in New York, my introduction to The Nutcracker was George Balanchine’s sumptuous production for the New York City Ballet. First performed on February 2, 1954, this resplendent annual treat made me a ballet fan for life. (And Tina the Ballerina sounded so lovely when I was 5 years old.) As an adult, I felt the same magic while watching Mikhail Baryshnikov fly through the air in his own lauded Nutcracker for the American Ballet Theatre. Filmed in 1977, it is one of the mostly widely viewed Nutcrackers in the world.
Even today, The Nutcracker never ceases to enchant me. Living in Boston, I have the pleasure of attending the internationally acclaimed Boston Ballet. Last year, the company’s longtime Artistic Director Mikko Nissinen spearheaded an entirely re-designed, re-choreographed Nutcracker that simply dazzled with breathtaking new sets and glorious costumes by the award-winning designer Robert Perdziola. And like Markova’s very first Nutcracker in the United States, the company performs at the Boston Opera House. (O.K. – it’s a replacement for the original theatre, but why quibble?)