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Dance Highlight: The Grand Pas de deux from The Nutcracker

A joyful moment from Act II, featuring the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Prince.

By John Snelson (Head of Publishing and Interpretation)

4 December 2013 at 3.15pm | 3 Comments

One of the most awaited moments (and there’s a lot of competition) in The Nutcracker is the Grand Pas de deux in Act II: visually stunning, musically gorgeous. It is part of the entertainments in the Kingdom of Sweets to reward Clara for her help in saving the life of the Nutcracker and defeating the Mouse King, and comes after a series of divertissements that includes the famous Arabian Dance, Chinese Dance, Dance of the Mirlitons (little flutes) and the Waltz of the Flowers.

A pas de deux is a centrepiece that allows two star dancers to shine with their technique, communication of emotion and especially their partnering – the sympathetic way they respond to each other. In classical ballets the pas de deux is usually for a male and female principal (and thus in the story so often between two lovers): here it is the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Prince. There is a general pattern for a classical pas de deux. First the two soloists enter and dance a slow section together (the Adagio), then they each have a solo number (called a Variation) and finally they dance together in a spectacular and usually fast conclusion (the Coda). Essential elements of the whole form draw on contrasts between the different sections in the choreography, characterization and, of course, the music. So how is this all shown in Act II of The Nutcracker?

For the first section, the choreographer Petipa asked the composer Tchaikovsky for ‘an adagio intended to produce a colossal impression’ – which is just what Tchaikovsky delivered. After a few chords of introduction, and unexpectedly in the middle of a bar, a striking and soulful cello melody begins, little more than a descending scale. Tchaikovsky transforms this unlikely material into a powerfully expressive melody, using repetitions matched with increasingly full and intense orchestration. The choreography focuses on the beauty of the line of the two solo dancers, treated as one as they flow gracefully into a series of momentary striking images of beautiful shapes and gravity-defying lifts and balances.

The Variation for the Prince is musically almost understated at the start, a quiet tarantella. The twisting and hopping quality of the melody is paired with choreography that seems equally understated in making a series of impressive and vigorous jumps and leaps seem effortless. Leaving the ground and occupying the air with total ease is a very hard thing to do indeed!

Next, the Sugar Plum Fairy has her Variation, which contrasts the Prince by showing lightness in contact with the ground through her beautifully precise and delicate movements, poised on pointe. Petipa asked here for music that sounded ‘as if drops of water were shooting out of fountains’, and Tchaikovsky matched this description superbly to the sounds of the celesta, the solo instrument that has helped make this one of the most immediately recognizable of all pieces of Tchaikovsky ballet music.

To finish, the two dancers come back together for a shared flourish of agility, supported by wonderfully vigorous and assertive music – marked to be played allegro assai (very fast). Over  steady chords sails a catchy, flowing melody that breaks out into furious runs of scales and then decorative figures and trills, capturing perfectly the energy and speed of the dancers. At the end, the Sugar Plum Fairy is in the arms of her Prince once more – and the whole joyful Grand Pas de deux becomes a summary of how choreography, superb technique, wonderful music and the thrill of performance can make ballet so extraordinary and uplifting.

The Nutcracker runs from 8 December 2015 to 14 January 2016. Tickets are still available.

The production will be relayed live to cinemas around the world on 16 December. Find your nearest cinema and sign up for our cinema newsletter.

The production is staged with generous philanthropic support from Lady Jarvis and The Royal Opera House Endowment Fund.


By John Snelson (Head of Publishing and Interpretation)

4 December 2013 at 3.15pm

This article has been categorised Ballet and tagged by Peter Wright, celesta, dance highlight, grand pas de deux, Nutcracker, Production, Sugar Plum Fairy

This article has 3 comments

  1. Alice Poulsen responded on 5 December 2013 at 10:51pm Reply

    Loved it and gutted i had to give up my ticket for next week! But at least someone else gets to see it and take joy in a beautiful production. LOVED the tree ...........

  2. MARISA responded on 13 December 2013 at 6:11pm Reply


  3. Carol McMaugh responded on 20 December 2018 at 1:25pm Reply

    I much appreciate your article. The Grand Pas de Deux from The Nutcracker is one of my favourites (along with the Rose Adagio). Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky' s ballet scores are treasured works of art. The dear man was truly inspired when he composed the music for the Nutcracker Grand Pas de Deux.
    And when the two principals have beautiful line and splendid technique - along with musicality and feeling - tthis Pas de Deux is pure magic !
    (Written by a former dancer, now in her eighties).

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