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More thoughts on the "Nuts"


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In the links section today there is an article from The Village Voice by Tobi Tobias: http://www.villagevoice.com/issues/0250/footnotes.php

I really think she sets her stage well as she writes

Every work of art is rooted in the time, place and social climate of its making. The most powerful and durable creations transcend these specifics.

The article continues:

In the 1816 story that spawned dozens of Nutcracker ballets, E.T.A. Hoffmann evokes a psychological milieu that has proved well-nigh universal. The Christmastide celebrations in which he sets his vivid account of a girl child's sexual awakening are merely a convenience, offering an atmosphere loaded with hectic excitements and the assembly of family and friends who are naturally the main characters in anyone's personal psychodrama...

She continues on comparing several versions... but what struck me, was that I'd never, ever, considered "The Nutcracker" to be a story about "a girl child's sexual awakening" at all. :eek: Am I alone in this - in being so naive? Or is it possible that since I've only really seen the Balanchine or "Balanchinish" versions that I missed this? Of course, now that it's been pointed out, I can certainly see how one might draw these conclusions... I'm sorry but I'm too ignorant and lazy to look up Sigmund Freud's time line to see if his concept of "the dream" might have had any impact on any of the earlier Nutcracker versions...

Care to comment or fill me in on this holiday fare?

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I'm too up to my ears in mousecheesesugarplumsanddrosselmeyercapes to go into historical minutiae, but yes, this is a common take on Nutcracker, based on the Hoffman story. The story is readily (and beautifully) available....look for it in a wonderfully illustrated edition by Maurice Sendak. For older children I think this is the best; for younger ones I think the subtext is better subsumed into the more general tale--Balanchine's is one very beautiful version.

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Baryshnikov's Nutcracker for ABT, which turns up on PBS occasionally, is the one I've seen that most clearly interprets the story as a sexual awakening. For one thing, Clara/Marie is danced by an adult rather than a girl -- and, in the TV broadcast, by the ultimate woman-child, Gelsey Kirkland. Her dances with the Prince, Baryshnikov, are very romantic and "grown-up" compared to other versions where it's more like Clara is off on a little girl's adventure to Candyland. If I'm remembering right, Kirkland even takes over the grand pas de deux that Sugarplum usually dances. There's also a bit of psychodrama with Drosselmeyer weaving in and out of one of Kirkland and Baryshnikov's dances in which he seems to be transferring his niece from childhood into adult life.

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To me (though this is not really an original thought) what you're asking is the difference between the Nutcracker as conceived by ETA Hoffmann and then as re-conceived by Petipa and Tchaikovsky. There's a distance between the two, and there aren't the same undertones. Honestly, I'm not that fond of productions that try and re-integrate the Hoffmann into that conception. I think they're fighting the music.

There's an essay in my dance writing page that's germane here, I think. Revisiting the Nutcracker.

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Wow! A seriously big thank you!! to you all. I really appreciate your information and responses.

Juliet, thanks for the heads up on Sendak's book - isn't that the version that Pacific Northwest Ballet performs?

Scoop, I will have to check out ABT's video with Kirkland and Baryshnikov. I am embarassed to say that I've never seen it.

Alexandra, thank you for pointing me directly to Mel's labor of love - Mel, you are truly a font (and one with humor, as well)! There is so much there to read that I'll have to go back to it at another sitting for sure.

And Leigh, thank you for sending me back to what I already know and love...and so beautifully written.

I would never have guessed that there was so much to know about the Nutcracker... how foolish of me!

Now what I really need to do is watch several versions to get a visual taste of their differences. :)

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please excuse any redundancy here, but if the point hasn't been made, it bears noting that the petipa/ivanov nutcracker took as the basis of its libretto not the E.T.A.H. tale but the retelling of the tale by Alexandre Dumas, pere.

ETAH's was called "The nutcarcker and the mouseking"

AD's "The nutcracker of nuremburg"

the latter being far less dark and/or convoluted than the former.

and finally the original libretto certainly simplified matters still further.

btw, nureyev's nutcracker prod. is also on tape/dvd(?) (with the royal ballet and also w/ paris opera ballet, though these may not still be on the market), and it does follow the darkish lines, a la hoffman, that have been picked up by others. all this stems in small part from the vainonen production, in soviet russia, 1934(?), which has influenced every nutcracker by a soviet-russian ever since, nureyev's and baryshnikov's included. vainonen's prod. is also on tape, w/ the kirov).

but nureyev's further emphasizes the darkness and double-meanings: at one point clara's family turns briefly sinister and spooky and bat-like in a hallucinatory moment.

to be sure, tho' his staging doesn't really delve into the dark aspects per se, balanchine has pointed consistently to hoffmann, not dumas, as his source. significantly, he calls his little heroine marie, a la hoffmann, and NOT clara, a la dumas.

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Wait, rg, I'm confused - you wrote

Balanchine has pointed consistently to Hoffmann, not Dumas, as his source. Significantly, he calls his little heroine Marie, a la Hoffmann, and NOT Clara, a la Dumas.
And yet, his version is supposed to be the one that is based on Herr Praesident and Frau Silberhaus's Christmas Eve celebration, isn't it?

Or, are you just pointing out the contradiction here?

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I honestly believe that Balanchine was throwing a lot of dust in critical eyes when he insisted that his production hewed more closely to Hoffman than Dumas. If he called the little heroine Hermione and put glasses on the Nutcracker Prince, would it then be the based-on-Rowling production? In truth, the act I party scene and battle with the mice underwent no significant changes from his first production at City Center, and the second act divertissement doesn't owe anything to either author. I've been through the Hoffman version of the story and the Dumas, given my bad German and worse French, and I can tell you, they're both spookier and rather meaner-spirited than the Balanchine libretto.

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i didn't mean to imply that balanchine meant he was interested in the 'extreme' aspects of hoffmann. just that when you read his remarks about his ballet he refers to hoffmann, not dumas, meaning i suppose that HIS rendering of the original russian petipa/ivanov led him to consider SOME of the details from hoffmann. he seems nowhere particularly to mention dumas.

i think he may even have seen his drosselmeier as a kind of hoffmannesque figure. and that his little heroine was in someway related to his reading of hoffmann, not dumas.

if i seemed to imply that balachine's NUTCRACKER was a rendering of the darker and weirder aspects of hoffmann's original tale, i did not intend to do so.

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Just an aside here for anyone who might be interested:

This issue of "The New Yorker" has a very short article, entitled Behind the Scenes: Wise Child by Joan Acocella with two photos by Mary Ellen Mark. Too bad they don't do links. :(

It explains why George Balanchine actually chose to have children play the roles of children in his version of The Nutcracker:

"...Balanchine was being true to the "Nutcracker" of his schooldays-the original, 1892 St. Petersburg production-in which he himself was a child dancer... That's why the Candy Cane's dance and the Prince's beautiful mime solo are the only parts...that reproduce Lev Ivanov's original choreography; because Balanchine danced those roles, he remembered the steps.

But the children's presence is more than an act of fidelity...Clara learns about adult love, and begins to feel it. But in Balanchine's Wordsworthian view Clara would have been lucky to say the way she was-imagining, not becoming...Children, he felt, knew better than adults; they lived the true life, the life of the mind. "Nonreality is the real thing," he said..."

Ms. Acocella concludes her piece by saying that because of Mr. Balanchine's feelings about children, they had to be in it...for "they were the source of its wisdom."

The photographs are interesting too - not your typical cute Nutcracker kid pictures... If you're familiar with Mary Ellen Mark's work you won't be surprised. They are in black and white and have a very dreamlike quality to them with tiny bits of "reality" poking through. But most of all I am glad I read the piece for that quote: "Nonreality is the real thing." :D

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It's an interesting issue, isn't it? I saw a Nutcracker recently in it with a Snow Queen who put her hands on the shoulders of both the lead children and when she did it, I flinched. The intersection of the human world and the idealized world was just too casual. A woman in a tutu is no longer just a woman. She doesn't interact with humans; they don't touch her. Of course there are exceptions - what I'm talking about is just the sense I want a production to have that someone dancing ballet has gone beyond being ordinary. We dance that way because it is an ideal. They don't do ordinary things in an ordinary way. The same production left the Sugar Plum Fairy unattended when she listened to Clara and the Prince. Again, it jarred me. She has attendants. You never leave her without attendants, except possibly to do her variation. She's not merely human.

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Hmm, Leigh, I'd never really thought about the dichotomy quite the way you've expressed it. I think you're right.

Were we at the same production?:eek: I think the Snow Queen I saw may have broken the spell the that night...perhaps that's why I didn't find her very compelling?

I do think you've hit on something...

"A woman in a tutu is no longer just a woman. She doesn't interact with humans; they don't touch her. Of course there are exceptions - what I'm talking about is just the sense I want a production to have that someone dancing ballet has gone beyond being ordinary.We dance that way because it is an ideal. They don't do ordinary things in an ordinary way."
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Even in Balanchine's oh-so-innocent evocation of childhood, we can see how Marie feels something new and special for Drosselmeyer's nephew in Act I. In Act II, as she dreams, he has taken her to the Land of the Sweets, filled with exotic (if childlike) pleasures. It's all very indirect, no heavy Freudian hand at work here. Still, the subtext of the girl contemplating her future womanhood can be drawn.

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And besides, in the Balanchine version, they don't stay in a neverending dream, ruling over the Kingdom of Sweets forever, as in the original book. They fly off in a reindeer-drawn sleigh, presumably back to the real world.

And if the dream creatures do touch the real world children, a lot must depend on how that touch is done. If it is to the top of the head, a priestly sort of benediction, that seems all right to me, and a pat on the cheek, a distinctly Romanov gesture of favor, that's all right, too, but they shouldn't get too chummy! Oddly, in the Balanchine production, Hayden used to begin the act and dance her variation very much as the ruling regent of the land, but when the Nutcracker Prince returned, she essentially became his vassal, and you could see it in her acting.

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i think it might prove useful to consider that the intention of the original libretto is to present the journey to the land of snow and the land of sweet as magic, not a dream.

marie is 'really' taken there.

Tchaikovsky scholar wiley published an essay in DANCE RESEARCH, the british publication, specifically stressing that the action of the ballet beyond the parlor scenes is NOT a dream.

and Balanchine has said, and some have observed, that marie marries the little prince in the kingdom of the sweets. the diverts. may therefore been scene almost as a pro-forma wedding divertissement. it was pointed out before i began to think about this that marie is dressed in bridal white,complete w/ veil in the kingdom scene. and in volkov's BALANCHINE'S TCHAIKOVSKY, balanchine is on record saying this for certain. i think the wording the text, not now at hand, is something like 'and they get married' after he tells the story of marie and little prince in the kingdom of sweets.

i know the reindeer sleigh was added later, i'm not now positive how the little couple exited the ballet in the original balanchine version.

mel's description of hayden's sugarplum demeanor sounds like she too recognized the nuptials of the little royal couple.

if anyone really cares to have the full citation, i'll try to locate the wiley essay and post the issue no. and date of DANCE RESEARCH.

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Thank you rg - I'd be interested in reading more on the subject... Forgive me, but is DANCE RESEARCH a publication that one can get a hold of easily...as in the library or, better yet, online?

Although I've seen NYCB's version several times before, it was this past Saturday night that Marie's wedding veil really struck me... The other part I hadn't really noticed before was that, at the end of Act I, Drosselmeier walks Marie and the Nephew forward, towards the front of the stage, and they take their bows. Apparently it's always done this way...but somehow I was surprised as it seemed to break the spell... Has it truly always been done this way?

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a few follow up comments:

firstly, perhaps i hallucinated about the later addition of departure of the little couple in the sleigh. i can't see it listed as an addition in CHOREOGARPHY BY BALANCHINE, so perhaps it was always thus, even in the initial Horace Armistead scheme.

secondly, in BALANCHINE'S TCHAIKOVSKY, volkov has balanchine suggesting that 'Marie may have dreamed the whole thing' but this is after he 'states' that 'The grateful Nutcracker brings her to the kingdom of toys and sweets and then marries her.' p. 178.

thirdly, wiley's essay appears in DANCE RESEARCH, vol. iii, no. 1, autumn 1984 pp. 3 - 28. the essay is entitled: 'On Meaning in "Nutcracker",' and among other things, in a separate section, called 'Drosselmayer,' notes that 'Drosselmayer's thoughts, moreover, fit nicely into the conceptual milieu of Russian language and culture, which adds strengh to the rational based on the logic of the story. The old man's musings constitute a kind of meditation denoted by the Russian work "duma." A "duma" is not a dream; it is not necessarily a logical progression of ideas. It is a collection of of thoughts and images, freely associated, of the kind that happens when one daydreams and the mind gently wanders. A "duma," however, is inherently serious in aspect; the word conveys precisely the quality of Tchaikovsky's thoughts while crossing the Atlantic.' - throughout the essay wiley weaves in details of tchaikovsky's biography, including recounting his travels during the time he was composing 'casse noisette.'

fyi: DANCE RESEARCH is not available to the best of knowledge any way but to members of Britain's "Society of Dance Research." A subscription is part of being a member. i think it may be a quartely, but i'm not positive. so alas, no, it's not readily available for sale in bookstores, but libraries with a serious interest in dance would likely have it.

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I think we may be looking at some "overlaying" of story over the original libretto. If I remember correctly, in the Balanchine production, the Nutcracker cuts a crown from one of the seven heads of the Mouse King, and gives it to Clara/Marie. In Russian eyes, this would not only be a symbol for creating her royalty, but of Orthodox marriage - remember the crowns used in the ceremony?

In the Armistead version, the kids just got back into the shell-boat, and off they went. I remember being very startled when the sleigh was added for the present production. In the original libretto, they stay onstage in the Kingdom of Sweets, ruling over it as Prince and Princess Regnant and an apotheosis of a huge bee-skep appears in a quick transformation before curtain. As I noted in the article back at the main page, bees are a classic symbol for industry and produce honey. Of course, they also sting, which xenophobic Russians duly would note. Please note that a bee-skep looks an awful lot like the Crown Imperial of Russia!

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As I was browsing the Links section today, I came across this post by Ari about a new book that's coming out in October by Jennifer Fisher called Nutcracker Nation: How an Old World Ballet Became a Christmas Tradition in the New World, click on this link and scroll down until you see the post. Perhaps it will make a nice Christmas present? :grinning:

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We've been transferring a number of older Nutcracker threads to the new Nutcracker sub-forum. (Thanks, cubanmiamiboy, for all your search-and-revive efforts.)

These threads are all worth revisiting and reviving, especially now that we are we approaching the North American "Nut" season.

This particular thread, focusing on the story elements, has some exceptionally interesting and informed commentary by rg, Mel, Leigh, BW, and others. The topic is NOT exhausted, I suspect.

Anyone have some new ideas. examples, or even disagreements?

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