“The Nutcracker was not a great success at its first performance,” says Daniel Jaffe. “I think they were trying to do something entirely new.

“The man who was behind The Sleeping Beauty was the director of the Imperial Theatres, Ivan Vsevolozhsky.

“He was an extraordinary man, a designer who adored ballet and thought ballet should be vastly improved from what it was. They had specialist ballet composers who had choreographers, but they didn’t work closely together. The music was very generic.

“What’s so extraordinary about Nutcracker is that – and this had never been done before, certainly not in Russia – that there were major parts for child dancers, which was [then] unheard of.”

There are also adult aspects to this ballet – it’s in some ways about coming of age, growing up, and finding out that the world is not as simple as you might have thought. And there’s the incredible Christmas tree in the Royal Ballet’s production which calls to mind Alice in Wonderland.

“It’s the whole idea of size changing and everything becoming topsy-turvy, and the small becomes significant,” says Jaffe.

Alice asked Daniel Jaffe why the music of the Nutcracker sometimes seems to be less appreciated here than in Russia.

“I think there’s been a degree of snobbery. One of my former professors [of music] was particularly damning of the Nutcracker,” he explains.

“He said it was a stupid, trite plot - Clara goes to sweet heaven just because she throws a shoe at a mouse – what a silly story!

“It hasn’t got the trappings of Sleeping Beauty, which is all about regeneration, the idea of spring breaking forth after a winter of someone being asleep.”

Tchaikovsky’s music has been talked about in more appreciative tones by other critics, such as the composer and musicologist Boris Asafyev, who among other things created the 1932 ballet Flames of Paris, and who said that Nutcracker represented ‘the ripening soul of a little girl’ who moves from a childhood where she plays with dolls to falling in love with a ‘brave and virile hero.’

“Some people have criticised that as implying that she’s far more pubescent than she’s actually meant to be,” says Jaffe.

“I think the point that she’s moving from what seems to be a trivial world of playing with dolls to actually investing emotionally in things – that is a stage which happens before pubescence. So in that sense he’s not wrong at all. And those who half-like the ballet tend to go for the second act, which is all pure adult dancing, whereas he took the first act very seriously and said it was a narrative.

“Of course that was the flavour of the time in the Soviet Union. He wrote this in the decade when Prokofiev wrote Romeo and Juliet – one of the great narrative ballets which is definitely telling a story. So I think he was in tune with the times when he said how the first act was about something, about a girl growing up.

“The thing is that Tchaikovsky did take the ballet very seriously, and there’s a lot of psychology implicit in his music,” he says.

One reason that some people don’t like The Nutcracker is that it sometimes gets watered down and made into a ballet that’s purely for children – and all its dark sides and mystery get wiped out.

“I think people try to make it into a family-friendly [thing] – it happens to so many things,” says Jaffe.

“Possibly that may be more the amateur end of productions. The danger of professional productions is that they can go in the other direction – become a bit removed, aloof, a bit too specialist.”

Nutcracker gallery

(Voice of Russia)