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Taking the "Nutcracker" Seriously or Not


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#1 Michael

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Posted 27 October 2001 - 12:28 PM

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 ]



#2 Juliet

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Posted 27 October 2001 - 04:05 PM

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 ]



#3 Mel Johnson

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Posted 27 October 2001 - 04:31 PM

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, PÍre, 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.

#4 vagansmom

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Posted 28 October 2001 - 12:44 AM

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

#5 felursus

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Posted 28 October 2001 - 12:08 AM

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.

#6 Mel Johnson

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Posted 28 October 2001 - 08:05 AM

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.

#7 Michael

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Posted 30 October 2001 - 10:07 AM

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 ]



#8 Allegro

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Posted 30 October 2001 - 10:26 AM

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.

#9 Alexandra

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Posted 30 October 2001 - 11:00 AM

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).

#10 Juliet

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Posted 30 October 2001 - 03:57 PM

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.

#11 Andrei

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Posted 30 October 2001 - 10:56 PM

[QUOTE]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

#12 Jameth

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Posted 12 December 2001 - 05:35 PM

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 ]



#13 atm711

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Posted 12 December 2001 - 07:22 PM

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!.

#14 Mel Johnson

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Posted 12 December 2001 - 10:51 PM

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.

#15 innopac

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Posted 15 December 2007 - 03:38 AM

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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