As thousands of lucky children learn every Christmas, The Nutcracker Ballet costumes are some of the most fanciful and fun you'll ever see on stage. Designed to bring a beloved fairy tale to life delighting audiences of all ages, the costumes are a wonderful balance of the practical for dance and the fantastic for the story.
The Classic Nutcracker Ballet Costumes
The Nutcracker ballet, based on the 1816 tale by E.T.A. Hoffman (or, more correctly, the softer version later written by Alexander Dumas), was first presented in St. Petersburg by the Russian Imperial Ballet in 1892, with music by Tchaikovsky. George Balanchine danced the role of the Prince in 1919. After he founded the New York City Ballet, he decided to present the ballet himself with new choreography. The first performance was in 1954 and it has been a staple of the NYCB ever since.
The Balanchine version uses children (students from the adjoining dance school) for much of the roles, although many other companies prefer to use teens or adults. The Nutcracker ballet costumes are therefore child-appropriate, whether they are playing the children of the party scene or the various toys of the dream and fight scene, or the fanciful characters in the Land of Sweets in the second act.
True to the original fairy tale, the costumes for the human characters are Victorian. Of course, they are designed to look heavier than they are, so that they can be danced in with ease. The costumes for the toy soldiers have a classic Victorian style, as do the dolls and the Nutcracker himself. Whereas the Bunny, soldiers and other toys danced by children (except the Nutcracker during the fight) wear costumes that keep their faces free, the mice, danced by adults, wear mouse heads. The mouse bodies are large and round to the hips, leaving the legs free for running and dancing. The effect of the heads make the mice menacing - even downright frightening for some of the tiniest members of the audience.
The Nutcracker's costume is based on the classic Russian nutcrackers, although with a less pronounced beard. The head is very carefully designed so that the boy wearing it has the full visibility necessary for the demanding fight scene. It is also designed so that it can be easily removed onstage for the transformation.
In the Land of Sweets
Act Two of The Nutcracker takes place in the fanciful Land of Sweets, where all the dancers represent a classic Christmas treat. The costumes can vary by company, but in the Balanchine version, The Nutcracker ballet costumes for this act have a look that is literal and yet whimsical. One of the most beloved characters in this sequence, having the most outlandish costume, is Mother Ginger. Mother Ginger is played by a man wearing stilts and has a gigantic, very heavy skirt (guided by wires) from under which her "children" appear and perform a bon-bon dance. The costume can vary widely, but usually has a vaguely Victorian look.
While some costumes may have variations, this is not so for Sugar Plum Fairy and her Prince. They wear classic ballet costumes, white with simple embellishments and very rich - designed to please the eye all the way to the balcony. For the NYCB version, Sugar Plum's tutu is comprised of seven layers of tulle! Other charming stylings include the crystals on the Dew Drop Fairy's costume and the jingle bells on the Candy Canes.
For performances taking place on Christmas Eve, dancers are allowed, and sometimes even encouraged, to add some extra flair to their costumes. The Candy Canes will often attach real candy canes to their costumes, and an extra air of festivity is generally seen and felt.
Many companies perform The Nutcracker and will design their own costumes, but the fairy-tale quality is always the first and foremost design element.