Late night inspiration
How Dinner with Balanchine & Danilova Led to Willam Christensen Creating America’s First Nutcracker
Although the Nutcracker is more than 100 years old, the American holiday tradition of Nutcracker performances started here in San Francisco in 1944. San Francisco Ballet Director Willam Christensen, wanting to fill an opera house that was dark in the month of December, wrote to the Library of Congress for a copy of the complete Tchaikovsky score. The original production had premiered at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg in December 1892—to decidedly mixed reviews. An abridged version had been danced in the United States by the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in 1940, but Christensen wanted to create the first complete production of Nutcracker in America.
When the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo toured to San Francisco, Christensen invited dancer Alexandra Danilova and ballet master George Balanchine to dinner at his apartment. Both had danced in Nutcracker as children in Russia. “Balanchine described the Mariinsky production: how the big doors opened on the tree, the mime of Drosselmeyer, all the details,” recalls Christensen. “At one point, Danilova started dancing Clara’s variation, in her stocking feet and street dress. Balanchine put an end to that with his admonishment, ‘No, no, Alexandra, don’t try to show him the actual steps. Let him create his own choreography.’ We worked all night, and that is how I got my first Nutcracker.”
Header Image: Celina Cummings in W. Christensen’s “Nutcracker”, 1944 // © San Francisco Ballet. Photo courtesy SFMPD.