The dark side of The Nutcracker: Cocaine contracts, paedo uncles and the ballet dancer who slit his own throat

With its bejewelled costumes and heaps of magic courtesy of the Sugar Plum Fairy, The Nutcracker is the hotly-anticipated film of the festive period.

Starring Kiera Knightley, Helen Mirren, Morgan Freeman and Jack Whitehall the new Disney blockbuster tells the story of Clara and her quest to open an enchanted box.

Kiera Knightley stars as the Sugar Plum Fairy

But far less enchanting are the true tales behind earlier versions of the story.

From the Nutcracker Prince who slit his own throat to the 25-year-old dancer who was addicted to cocaine then developed an eating disorder – here, we reveal the dark history of the Christmas fairytale.

Gelsey Kirkland was plagued by eating disorders and a cocaine addiction
Getty – Contributor

The heroine plagued with a cocaine addiction

The original story, The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, was written by German author E. T.A Hoffann in 1816 and then adapted into Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s famous ballet in 1892.

Almost a century later, in 1977, the ballet was adapted for the big screen, with dancers Gelsey Kirkland, then 25, and Mikhail Baryshnikov playing the lead roles of Clara and the Nutcracker Prince.

Innocent in her pink dress and matching bow, the New York Times called Gelsey a “joy” in her debut role as Clara.

Gelsey Kirkland played innocent Clara, but suffered from anorexia and an addiction to cocaine

But behind the scenes, the dancer was addicted to cocaine – which she smuggled into the theatre in her ballet shoes – and had an eating disorder, fuelled by pressures to be skinny on stage. 

She previously said: “I starved by day, then binged on junk food and threw up by night.

“I took injections of pregnant cows’ urine, reputed to be a miraculous diet aid and even stuffed myself with laxatives, thyroid pills, and celery juice. I emptied myself with enemas and steam baths.

Was Gelsey’s fate down to the curse of The Nutcracker?
Getty – Contributor

“During the wee hours, I often made desperate trips to the drugstore to pick up ipecac to induce vomiting. I became an expert with the technique of shoving two fingers down my throat.”

After dropping to under 100lbs, the ballet director still wasn’t happy and reportedly struck her over the chest one day, saying: “Must see the bones. Eat nothing.”

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A new remake of the Nutcracker came out this week[/caption]

The dancers were put through gruelling regimes, too.

Gelsey quickly turned to cocaine to keep her awake and help her get through her painful routines.

“At one point I was in so much pain, they thought I might fall over and die on stage. I’m very lucky to be alive,” she said.
It got to the point that she couldn’t function without drugs.
“One of my contracts stated explicitly that I would only work if I was supplied with cocaine on a daily basis,” she previously admitted.
The seven-headed Mouse King is enough to give any child nightmares
Corbis – Getty

By 1984, Gelsey’s cocaine addiction had become so bad that she suffered several seizures, blackouts and convulsions.

With her health fading rapidly, Gelsey, who now runs her own ballet school,  began to wean herself off drugs just in time.

In her memoir, Gelsey also reveals her bitterness when she recalls how the Nutcracker Prince and real-life lover “dressed faster than any man I’ve ever known” – and wanted no emotional attachment to her.

The Nutcracker Prince who slit his own throat

But Gelsey’s isn’t the only actor to have suffered as a result of the ballet.

A century earlier, in 1892, the leading role of the Nutcracker Prince was played by popular and handsome dancer Sergai Legat in St Petersburg.

The first ever Nutcracker Prince slit his own throat after a run-in with the authorities

One critic said the ballet had been “the most tedious thing I’ve ever seen, and others blasted the performance for having ‘lopsided’ choreography after the ballet master fell ill for the entire rehearsals.

As if cursed from the start, 13 years later, the Russian Revolution broke out and the company’s dancers were forced to flee Russia.

Most of the original cast were forced to flee during the Russian Revolution – eventually bringing Russian high society to London

Yet despite his on-stage persona, Sergai was hiding a battle with mental illness, and before they left the country he was found, aged 30, having slit his own throat with a razor.

Murdered children and paedophilic uncles

Children’s stories in the 1800s were not usually made for entertainment, and often came with strict moral messages.

Drosselmeyer, played by Morgan Freeman, is one of the ballet’s most controversial characters

The original Nutcracker tells the tale of how the Queen Mouse tricked the King’s wife into letting her and her children eat lard meant for the King’s sausages.

In revenge, the King hired Drosselmeyer, Clara’s godfather, to invent mouse-traps to murder the Queen Mouse’s children.

The Nutcracker is performed all over the world

The mysterious Drosselmeyer has also been at the centre of several different interpretations.

While in the Disney version, he is portrayed by Morgan Freeman as a one-eyed, otherworldly, wise man, several fans have speculated that he could be a paedophile in the original play.

One company, Pacific Ballet, openly portrayed him as lusting after Clara and becoming angered when she fell for the doll he gave her instead of him.

Other productions have seen Drosselmeyer sipping from a hip-flask to suggest he’s an alcoholic, but he almost always appears as a creepy and often frightening character.

Banged skulls, smashed toes and vomiting bugs

Today, The Nutcracker is the most performed ballet across theatre companies worldwide, but the curse still follows its dancers.

One of the principal dancers at the Boston Opera House describes the experience of dancing the famous tale as “a marathon of pain”, with other dancers describing gruesome injuries such as “broken bones, smashed toes, painful corns, and banged skulls.”

The ballet is so notorious for its excruciating moves, performers are left with what they call the ‘end of series limp’.

Each performance demands over 200 dancers, a lot of whom are children, so sickness bugs and even toilet accidents are rife.

On one occasion, a dancer slipped in a “wet puddle” on stage at the Boston Opera House, and another saw 200 of its dancers fall ill to norovirus after a younger member of the cast caught the bug and it spread like wild fire.

Dancer Lawrence Rines recalls “a kid in the wings taking the hat off of the costume and throwing up in it”.

But the show must go on, and over a century later, The Nutcracker’s popularity is still on the rise as the dark tale gains a Hollywood twist once again in time for Christmas.


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