Michael

Taking the "Nutcracker" Seriously or Not

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With Nutcracker Season less than a month away, I've been feeling that the ballet might even have a serious theme for me this year, as I see it thematically as concerned with the absorbtion of "evil" or "the fearful" into the peaceful ideals of the bourgeois world -- or perhaps the neutralizing or the sublimation of "evil" or the "fearful" is a better way of putting it.

In this reading, Drosselmeyer is a threatining figure, but also a curiously benign one. At the family's party, we first see a heated rivalry between the siblings -- certainly agression -- but one which does not exceed the boundaries of the polite or the cute.

Then, as the evil genius of the party, Drosselemeyer first introduces the curious Nutcracker man -- a kind of double or doppleganger for his nephew, who will become the child prince.

After this, as the evil genius of Marie's dream, Drosselmeyer through sympathetic magic makes the childlike world expand (at least in the City Ballet production, which is I think based upon the 19th century Maryinsky?) until he introduces a war between the rats or mice (which are they?)and the toy soldiers -- which is a mock war for the adult audience, but a fearful one for Marie.

All of which is resolved when the Nutcracker turns into boy Prince (with a kind of precocious sublimation of Marie's pre-adolescent sexuality hinted at?) and utterly defeats evil and fear. This is also quite like how romantic love, in the person of Prince Desire, resolves the drama in Sleeping Beauty, except that in the Nutcracker it is a caricature.

The Nutcracker is thus a sort toy version of Sleeping Beauty. Beauty absorbed into the bourgeois entertainment of a North European Christmas.

I may be "Nuts" for looking for at it this way but, post 9/11, a "curiously benign" dramatic representation of the fearful will be most welcome to me.

[ October 27, 2001: Message edited by: Michael1 ]

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This has been one of the purposes of children's literature, folk, and fairy tales for centuries.

Read to your children, parents. Read with them when they are older.

Much "folk literature," not to mention fairy tales *are* dark.....it is a manageable way for children to deal with things they feel or learn.

[ October 27, 2001: Message edited by: Juliet ]

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However, the closer one gets to the E.T.A. Hoffman originals, the darker the story becomes, as befits a writer from the Gothic period in European literature. The story used by Petipa and Ivanov to formulate the original libretto of the ballet was based on versions of the tales as retold by Alexandre Dumas, Pêre, and softened considerably. In production, the story got even warmer and fuzzier, and ended up a paean to Russian consumerism/capitalism! Balanchine took this model and whether by accident or design, arranged a Nutcracker that was perfect for the mood of the post WWII-generation of Americans, who had a similar point of view when it came to conspicuous consumption. His new version for the New York State Theater made it a bit more sophisticated, but still celebratory of prosperity.

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The Nureyev production that the Royal Ballet used to do (and I think Paris Opera still does do) was loaded with bits ripe for a Freudian interpretation. For a start, the mice (or rats) pull off Clara's skirt when they are chasing her around the room. This was, in ballet costume terms, a means to have her change from the dress she wears to the children's party to a filmier underskirt. In practice, the inevitable DID occur, and some mouse (or rat) pulled too hard on the wrong bits, and nearly EVERYTHING came off! When Fritz "breaks" the Nutcracker there's quite a bit of "violence" And then there's the bit where the Nutcracker-turned-soldier turns into the Prince (picture Wayne Sleep becoming Rudolf Nureyev or Anthony Dowell). So the "toy" becomes the grownup prince. But at this stage the child Clara is still just that. Then still further on there is a bit where Clara is confronted with members of her family - including Grandmama and Grandpapa - in a nightmarish sequence before she can "grow up" and become the Sugar Plum Fairy. Oh, and since I haven't seen the production for years I nearly forgot: of course the most Freudian thing of all is that Drosselmeyer becomes the prince.

It's such a popular ballet because of the Christmas theme and because of the fact that it uses a lot of chilren and can easily lend itself to being done by a small company that can use students from the local ballet school/company-associated school in many different types of roles. It also lends itself to being choreographed in a way that can accomodate dancers at different levels.

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I read the original Hoffman story long before I ever saw a Nutcracker. I remember wondering why it was such a holiday favorite!

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I think it may be time to quote one of my balletic apothegms: "If it dates before Freudian theory was widespread, no Freud!"

One of the greatest dangers in staging this seemingly harmless Christmas fable is coming up with a bland, or worse, a sour version.

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I think that, in staging the Nutcracker, the crucial thing is therefore to preserve the dark side and in how that is handled. The dark must be there but must be handled with a light touch too, since that is the point of the piece.

I've been looking for a good translation of Hoffman's Nutcracker for years but haven't found one. Does his story differ from the "book" of the ballet? If so, how?

Hoffman has always seemed one of the quintessential examples of German romanticism to me. And, given romanticism's central idea that northern, indigenous, "nationalistic" myths, legends and folk tales could be as fit subjects for high art as the the Greco-Roman myths in which the Rennaissance had discovered its artistic material -- the Nutcracker becomes very interesting. In that context it's a kind of exploration of the Pagan, pre-Christian myths and traditions that underlie Christmas and a resonant dialogue between the two traditions.

During Marie's Christmas-eve sleep, folk tale figures and personae from the Northern pre-Christian past thus keep popping up and invading the Christmas holiday -- just as the Christmas tree itself had a pagan, pre-Christian significance and the pundits say the Christmas itself had a precursor as a winter solstice festival.

It's the dialogue between the two and how it gets resolved that makes this ballet dramatically vital.

[ October 30, 2001: Message edited by: Michael1 ]

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Ooh, The traditional Nutcracker Ballet, is SO different from the Hoffman 'fairytale.' I haven't read it in a long time, but I remember it being extremely different. There is no party, I dont' think, and no Marie/Clara, but there is a Princess Pirlipat, I think I remember a fairy godmother cursing a baby boy in the cradle to make him ugly, with large jaws, but maybe I am making that up.

I'll try to find the story. I think I have it at home.

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Yes, the Nutcracker ballet is very different from the story. Often in discussions such as this, "content" becomes equated with the narrative. If the ballet isn't as "dark" or "psychological" or "spooky" then it somehow is lightweight, creampuff, not worthy of our attention. We must change it! Add subtexts, characters, etc. Why not have the mice just eat Clara and be done with it? smile.gif

Ballet isn't supposed to be realistic. It's an abstraction -- all fine art is an abstraction, I would argue. The content in "Nutcracker" -- and "Concerto Barocco" -- is not in its story, but in its form (the poetry of its structure and its steps).

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A very good edition of Nutcracker, by E.T.A. Hoffmann was published by Crown Publishers in 1984. Illustrations by Maurice Sendak. Most public libraries have it, and I believe it is still in print.

I always thought Princess Pirlipat would be a good name for a cat. Very apt.

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Originally posted by alexandra:

Why not have the mice just eat Clara and be done with it? smile.gif

You didn't see a new Mariinsky version yet !

biggrin.gif

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My favortie version that I have seen of the Nutcracker is James Canfields. Set in Imperial Russia and taken right out of history are some quintessential dancers/artists of the time...

James

[ December 12, 2001: Message edited by: Jameth ]

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Drosselmeyer has always been a disturbing figure for me. It was never more so than when I saw on TV this week the Pacific Northwest production. His lascivious leers to the child Clara should land him in a child abuse case. But I don't want to single out this production alone---it's all there in NYCB production, too. Merry Christmas, indeed!.

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Do remember that the Nutcracker Doll isn't a doppelganger for Drosselmeyer's nephew, but for the old man himself! The young hero who rescued Princess Pirlipat from her curse was Nicholas...Drosselmeyer! He in his turn is cursed to be old and ugly, with a wide mouth like a nutcracker, so when the doll is transformed into the young man, the old D. should not appear again! A failing in all too many productions.

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I am reading The Best Tales of Hoffmann translated by E F Bleiler. (Dover Publications, 1967) In this collection there is a very dark story entitled "Automata". And at the story's center is The Talking Turk - a seemingly magical automaton with amazing powers. I am curious to know if this story, as well as "The Sandman", influence the creation of Coppelia.

Also, here is a passage from "Automata" which relates to The Nutcracker.

"I must tell you," said Lewis, "that the moment I went into the room the figure reminded me of a most delightful nutcracker which a cousin of mine once gave me at Christmas when I was a little boy. The little fellow had the gravest and most comical face ever seen, and when he had a hard nut to crack there was some arrangement inside him which made him roll his great eyes, which projected far out of his head, and this gave him such an absurdly lifelike effect that I could play with him for hours. In fact, in my secret soul, I almost thought he was real. All the marionettes I have seen since then, however perfect, I have thought stiff and lifeless compared to my glorious nutcracker."

page 88

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It wouldn't have been the first time an author went all self-referential!

Unfortunately, I don't know whether that story had made it to Russia, or even to Dumas, for that matter. Vsevolozhsky only credited "The Nutcracker and the King of the Mice" and "The Sandman" Obviously, these have backstories like "The Hard Nut", and some others.

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Unfortunately, I don't know whether that story had made it to Russia, or even to Dumas, for that matter. Vsevolozhsky only credited "The Nutcracker and the King of the Mice" and "The Sandman" Obviously, these have backstories like "The Hard Nut", and some others.

Thanks for that -- I hadn't thought about the availability of all the stories - although they were written around the same period they might not have been published freely.

I have read that Hoffmann had a fascination with but also a horror of automata. In the passage from "Automata" about the nutcracker though he expresses the wonder of a childhood memory. I see the potential for a travesty of humankind versus the magic of childhood (however dark) as underlining the difference between Coppelia and Nutcracker, between the characterisations of Dr. Coppelius and Drosselmeyer. What do you think?

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I'd certainly have to agree with that. And certainly there is a difference in how the two shows come down to us. The earliest Nutz comes to us in two basic forms, the Sergeyev notations, and IMO, the Balanchine version, which is the "production of record" for many modern audiences, and contains bits and pieces of retained mime at least from the Imperial days. Coppélia is St.-Léon's choreography, but came to us through a Petipa restaging in Russia. The Ballet Russe and Dame Adeline Genée were major players in keeping this ballet alive. Of course, there is the Royal Danish production, too.

The RB version has, over the years, softened the old gizmo-maker into someone who may be a little off, but whose problems may mostly be seated in his being lonely! In Ballet Russe productions, he used to take the nobleman's money and run off with it -- purely mercenary. The RB had him sit down onstage, fussing and silently fuming, until one of the children finds him while the divertissement is going on. "What's the matter? Why do you cry?" He mimes back, "My baby is dead!" The children gather around him, giving him sympathy, and alerting their parents, who come to condole with the old man. As the divertissement proceeds, they slowly, slowly, often during the applause, sweep around upstage gradually reaching the toymaker's shop, then he invites them in! While the coda is going on, the burgomaster and the nobleman hoist glasses to one another and offer one to the toymaker, who appears from an upper window, surrounded by loving children and happy parents. He bends a hook out of a piece of wire, and up comes his glass too. The three mimes then toast the audience as the final tableau occurs.

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I'd certainly have to agree with that. And certainly there is a difference in how the two shows come down to us. The earliest Nutz comes to us in two basic forms, the Sergeyev notations, and IMO, the Balanchine version, which is the "production of record" for many modern audiences, and contains bits and pieces of retained mime at least from the Imperial days. Coppélia is St.-Léon's choreography, but came to us through a Petipa restaging in Russia. The Ballet Russe and Dame Adeline Genée were major players in keeping this ballet alive. Of course, there is the Royal Danish production, too.

The RB version has, over the years, softened the old gizmo-maker into someone who may be a little off, but whose problems may mostly be seated in his being lonely! In Ballet Russe productions, he used to take the nobleman's money and run off with it -- purely mercenary. The RB had him sit down onstage, fussing and silently fuming, until one of the children finds him while the divertissement is going on. "What's the matter? Why do you cry?" He mimes back, "My baby is dead!" The children gather around him, giving him sympathy, and alerting their parents, who come to condole with the old man. As the divertissement proceeds, they slowly, slowly, often during the applause, sweep around upstage gradually reaching the toymaker's shop, then he invites them in! While the coda is going on, the burgomaster and the nobleman hoist glasses to one another and offer one to the toymaker, who appears from an upper window, surrounded by loving children and happy parents. He bends a hook out of a piece of wire, and up comes his glass too. The three mimes then toast the audience as the final tableau occurs.

What production would have the most sinister Dr Coppelius you have seen?

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I'd have to say the old Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo production with Yurek Lasowsky as Dr. Coppélius. He made the character seem quite dangerous. Roland Petit's was dangerous, too, in another way. He made him a lounge lizard.

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... a "curiously benign" dramatic representation of the fearful will be most welcome to me.

I've always been a strong advocate for a more serious non-seasonal adult oriented staging of the ballet. The following is a fragment of an interesting article of Kathleen Wessels for the Journal Constitution about the Atlanta Ballet Production.

"When did "The Nutcracker," and many other ballets for that matter, become so childish? Why must panda suits and pigs en pointe dance onstage with trained artists? Maybe ballet in Atlanta is best supported by families with young children, and companies are adjusting their programming accordingly. But "The Nutcracker" is a timeless, albeit fantastical, story with scary characters (the Rat King is no Barney). Ballet patrons, just like patrons of other art forms, should be challenged with a mature reading of a historical classic. The Atlanta Ballet's highly trained professionals deserve no less."

http://www.ajc.com/holidayguide/content/ho...acker_1205.html

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You've just hit on an original criticism of the ballet. Petersburg writers denounced the show as "some sort of fragile and sugary Nutcracker". It followed a very serious and even grim Tchaikovsky opera, Iolanta, at its premiere, and the audiences wanted continuity in their mood, not relief.

Balanchine's version did about as much to address the original criticisms as could be done, and not spoil the essential core of the ballet. That's the problem with attempts to make the ballet "more Hoffmanesque", or "more relevant". They ignore the harmony of music, story, choreography and decor which makes for a well-integrated ballet. And this ballet is not popular merely because of a seasonal theme. It's really well-balanced, and the most durable productions work within what the show has, and don't superimpose a weight that spun sugar can't support.

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And this ballet is not popular merely because of a seasonal theme. It's really well-balanced, and the most durable productions work within what the show has, and don't superimpose a weight that spun sugar can't support.

Well said. And they attend to what Tchaikovsky put in the score.

Thank you, innopac, for reviving this interesting thread, and to Mel for moving the discussion forward so well. :)

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And this ballet is not popular merely because of a seasonal theme. It's really well-balanced, and the most durable productions work within what the show has, and don't superimpose a weight that spun sugar can't support.

I absolutely agree with your statement, Mel. Being familiar with basically two productions of the ballet, the Fokine/Alonso one for the NBC and later on Balanchine's for MCB, i was trying to address the fact of how totally different the feelings of this two productions are when one sees them live . Being more used to to the first one, IMO that even substituting the children for children look-alike very young professional dancers for the first Act, the toys choreography created as a reminiscence and homage to Fokine's "Petrushka" on the same Act, the old fashioned/ethereal designed Snow Queen and King PDD on the Snow Scene, the massive, impressive and synchronized entrance of the adult female Corps as the angels on the Act II, the Cossack's inspired Trepak as the Russian Dance and finally, the preservation of the entire Sugar Plum Fairy PDD as a whole in choreography, style, meaning and spirit and its respectful take as a center of design and conception of the ballet as one of the most important exponents of the Petipa/Ivanov surviving masterpieces, are facts that really make an impact once we see other takes on the work...As usual, this is just my amateurish point of view, and again, Thank you, Mel, for your always expert considerations. Keep'em coming! :thumbsup:

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cubanmiamiboy, while I agree that Balanchine's rearrangement of the Grand pas de deux music is one of the weaknesses of the ballet, one shouldn't throw the baby out with the bathwater, because Balanchine's Nutcracker has so many strengths as well. Year after year, it continues to enchant audiences with its humor and charm. The choreography is consistently strong, ESPECIALLY the grand pas de deux, with its tricky shoulder leap-to-lifts, and the final lunging fishdive. I've seen the allegro choreography of the Dewdrop trip up many a dancer. The mice scene is flat-out funny, with the mice lined up like cheerleaders on a bleacher. Most importantly, Balanchine preserves the idea that the Nutcracker is a child's fantasy, and it really has CHRISTMAS spirit -- it's giving, cheerful, family-friendly, maybe a little corny. But every time I've seen it I walk out of the theater happy.

Now is it perfect? Far from it. I wish that Marie didn't lie so long on that damned bed. As you said, the musical rearrangement of the grand pas de deux is jarring for those of us who know the Nutcracker score. I don't really like the sliding thingie that the SPF has to ride either. But, having seen many many versions of the Nutcracker, I still think it's the best.

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