A black and white photo of a girl in a dress hugging a nutcracker in front of a glittering background.
Alberta Grant with nutcracker in Act I of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker®, 1954. Photograph by Zachary Freyman / Courtesy Estate of Bob Kohler.

It is so much a part of the holidays in New York that it is now hard to imagine a time when George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker® did not call for an annual pilgrimage to the ballet. When the ballet debuted in 1954, however, it was not an immediate success. But when a televised and narrated version brought this magical world into people’s homes all across America in 1958, a classic was born. In 1964, the ballet saw some choreographic changes, and brand new costumes and sets were commissioned from the artists Barbara Karinska and Rouben Ter-Arutunian. The modifications brought iced perfection to an already sweet work, and George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker® has remained untouched since this time, allowing multiple generations to bond over a shared experience year after year with the New York City Ballet.

The exhibition Winter Wonderland: George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker® charts the early years of the ballet’s life, from its premiere in February 1954 to the success of the remounted production in 1964. Through treasures from the archives of the Jerome Robbins Dance Division, including photographs, set models, and costume designs, the story of the work emerges, as do the thematic qualities that make Balanchine’s version of the ballet unique and so enduring: namely nostalgia, faith, love, and childhood innocence and wonder.

Explore the exhibition

George Balanchine's The NutcrackerⓇ was a work in progress for the first ten years of its existence from 1954 to 1964, when it found its permanent home in the State Theater (now the Koch Theater) at Lincoln Center. Click on any of the images to learn more about this ballet.

Act I Set Model (The Dream) and Act II Set Model (Candy Land)

Rouben Ter-Arutunian undertook both the lighting and the sets for George Balanchine’s The NutcrackerⓇ, and this pair of set models is set up to experiment with gels and different lighting effects. In this first model, which details Act I, the Christmas tree has already grown and a mouse lurks in the corner behind an unsuspecting Mary. Although the Ter-Arutunian designs have remained largely untouched since 1964, his version of Candy Land originally drew references from the E.T.A. Hoffmann story and featured a detailed chocolate environment that many, including Balanchine, found a little cloying. Accordingly, Ter-Arutunian modified Candy Land once more, replacing the velvety cocoa (that can be seen in some of the working sketches within the exhibition) with ethereal lace that evokes airiness and spun sugar in a series of arches and columns that frame the dancing without dominating it.

A photo of a set model with red fabric sides. The proscenium is made out of gold lace with pink, blue, and yellow jewels across the top. A window and bookcase is is the back right corner. A decorated Christmas tree is on the left with a mouse peaking out from behind it. A doll bed in front of the tree. A girl is standing in the front center, looking at the Christmas tree with her arms raised in the air.
Act I set model (The Dream), c. 1992
Rouben Ter-Arutunian
31 1/4 x 25 1/4 x 27 3/4 in.
A close up photo of a set model. A window and bookcase is is the back right corner. A decorated Christmas tree is on the left with a mouse peaking out from behind it. A doll bed in front of the tree. A girl is standing in the front center, looking at the Christmas tree with her arms raised in the air.
Act I set model (The Dream), c. 1992
Rouben Ter-Arutunian
31 1/4 x 25 1/4 x 27 3/4 in.
A photo of the top of the set model. Organic strips o f cardboard and red, blue, black, and green transparency film are taped across the wooden frame.
Act I set model (The Dream) top view, c. 1992
Rouben Ter-Arutunian
31 1/4 x 25 1/4 x 27 3/4 in.
A photo of a set model with red fabric sides. The proscenium is made out of gold lace with pink, blue, and yellow jewels across the top. The interior of a castle with a throne is made out of white lace covered in colorful candy. A ballerina in a green tutu is standing the center.
Act II set model (Candy Land), c. 1992
Rouben Ter-Arutunian
31 5/8 x 25 1/4 x 27 3/4 in.
A close up photo of a set model. The interior of a castle with a throne is made out of white lace covered in colorful candy. A ballerina in a green tutu is standing the center.
Act II set model (Candy Land), c. 1992
Rouben Ter-Arutunian
31 5/8 x 25 1/4 x 27 3/4 in.

Would you like to learn more about George Balanchine’s The NutcrackerⓇ and the artists who made the ballet? Below is a list of books for children and adults, all available for check out with a valid NYPL library card.

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