“Can’t repeat the past?” he cried incredulously. “Why of course you can!”
– The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
Whether you agree with Mr. Gatsby or not, the idea of repeating the past was the game plan for choreographer Marius Petipa during the creation of the Waltz of the Flowers for the very first Nutcracker in 1892…
The past that Petipa was seeking to repeat was the recent past–his previous collaboration with composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky in 1890 on a ballet known as The Sleeping Beauty.
Dance writer and critic Robert Greskovic explains:
“Tchaikovsky composed a lush, expansive waltz for what Petipa planned as a re-creation of the similarly grand number he staged for the “Valse Villageoise” in Sleeping Beauty two years earlier.” (Ballet 101, p. 266)
“Valse Villageoise” is, of course, the “Village Waltz” a.k.a. “Garland Waltz” a.k.a. Disney’s inspiration for the song, “Once Upon a Dream.”
Petipa gave Tchaikovsky detailed guidelines about the structure of each scene in The Nutcracker and the accompanying music he desired him to compose. His outline for the Waltz of the Flowers is as follows:
Valse des Fleurs with large garlands.
8 bars for the start of the waltz, then, the
same amount of bars as in the rural waltz
in The Sleeping Beauty (second scene).
The little man claps his hands and 36 danseurs
and 36 danseuses appear, dressed
like flowers who carry a large bouquet
and present it to the Prince and his Bride.
As soon as this is done, the dancers, as is
usual in operas, take their positions and
begin to dance.”
(The Nutcracker Ballet by Jack Anderson, p. 38)
What might this have looked like on stage?
Perhaps something like the clip below from a Staatsballett Berlin production that drew upon the 1892 costume and set designs as well as historic choreographic records…However, this Nutcracker is certainly not a “reconstruction.” As critic Ilona Landgraf explains about the surviving notation of The Nutcracker’s choreography:
“[…] the snag is that Stepanov recorded only the big, complex group dances and poses. Missing are transitions and other crucial specifics.”
Still, this video offers an interesting glimpse at a vision of the Waltz of the Flowers that’s very different than interpretations we are used to seeing today.
Can you, as a modern balletomane, disassociate the garland imagery in this Tchaikovsky waltz from its more famous use in The Sleeping Beauty?
Moreover, does the Waltz of the Flowers live up to the Village Waltz? Does it surpass it? Did Petipa and Tchaikovsky succeed in repeating the past? Let me know your thoughts in the comments…