Wednesday, December 15, 2010


The Nutcracker, a Romance

At the end of the original "Nutcracker," written by ETA Hofman, the heroine, Marie, gets her prince. He'd been suffering under a curse, and was made to take the form of a practical, but otherwise ugly wide-jawed Nutracker. She, however, has seen through the curse, helped him defeat it and will be rewarded with the title of princess, and marriage.

Drosselmeyer's nephew takes Marie aside and tells her that by swearing that she would love him in spite of his looks, she broke the curse on him and made him handsome again. He asks her to marry him. She accepts, and in a year and a day he comes for her and takes her away to the Doll Kingdom, where she is crowned queen and eventually marries the Prince.

In other words, the Nutcracker is a romance that ends pretty much on the same note as Beauty and the Beast where, due to heroics, the girl is able to get the boy who turns out to be handsome after all. But this only happens after much torment from the mouse King and Queen, and only after the young couple's mettle is tested night after night. In other words, the Nutcracker is a romance, but of the dark variety.

Another way to look at it, is that the Nutcracker is a kind of inverse Swan Lake, where the hero does not screw up, the half-man-half-Nutcracker does not have to sacrifice himself in order for any curses to be broken. Instead, the girl--just like Beauty and the Beast--saves the day. She's no hapless Siegfried, easily fooled by the Black Swan, or shallow Albrecht, who just wanted a bit of fun.

(Cover of Sendak's illustration of the ETA Hoffman tale).

Tchaikovsky would have read this story when composing the music for the Nutcracker. You might not know this now when you hear snippets of the ballet's more upbeat musical interludes--Spanish Coffee, the Waltz of the Flowers--when you are shopping at the mall. Listening to these pieces, you might think that the Nutcracker is just another variation of a Disneyfied Fantasia. But if you really listen to the music all the way through--really listen--you'll hear hints of the kind of romance and drama that Tchaikovsky must have been trying to capture.

Why is the Nutcracker so popular? I've been reading the New York Times critic Alastair MaCauley's accounts of his Nutcracker journey across America. Back in November, he wrote:

The importance of this ballet to America has become a phenomenon that surely says as much about this country as it does about this work of art.

And why is the ballet so important?

While the United States is far from young, it still matters to many Americans that this nation seems youthful and that it embraces newcomers. When the “Nutcracker” heroine arrives in the paradiselike Land of Sweets, she is at once made welcome. The Sugar Plum Fairy presides with her wand in ways not unlike the Statue of Liberty with her torch in New York Harbor. You have traveled far; here, in this land of milk and honey, find rest and delight. Here people of different races are equal; here you may make a new start.

One aspect of the discussion surrounding the Nutcracker that I haven't seen addressed (yet), is this idea of romance. If you speak to balletomanes, most will agree that their favorite version of the Nutcracker was the one produced by Baryshnikov, in which the lead dancers are not children, but adults, who play children at first, but grow up as the story develops. In the Hoffman story--Marie/Clara is a 12 year old girl. She is precisely on the cusp of adulthood, as one would have considered womanhood a century ago. In the Baryshnikov/Kirkland version of the Nutcracker, Clara/Marie helps to defeat the Mouse King, rescues the prince and discovers that . . . she likes him. Take a look at this clip, just after the Mouse king has been defeated and the prince gently thanks Marie and she, in turn, learns to dance with him, as an adult.

It's pretty romantic. The prince remembers that he is a prince. He's nice to Clara right away--just as a girl would dream a prince would be--and gently demonstrates that kindness and heroism and sex appeal can all go together. What girl would not fall for this?

It's a strong contrast to the way the scene is played by, say, New York City Ballet, in which the prince and Clara/Marie are children. I could not find a comparable video clip for you to compare. But there is this decidedly unsexy photo:

It's a lovely moment in the ballet between two children, though it does not, to my mind, take advantage of all the lush music Tchaikovsky offered. But that was not Balanchine's point in creating his Nutcracker: he wanted to be able to showcase students of different ages from his school and to give them a chance to perform. In Balanchine's version, the Nutcracker is still a magical story, but it is not a romance. And though I enjoy this production, I always feel that the music is not completely well served. An example:

Here's Gelsey Kirkland again, still in Clara's "nightgown," now in love and dancing because she is in love and dancing for her prince. The drama is grounded in the music.

Now, in the City Ballet version, here is the Sugarplum Fairy (I think that's Darci Kistler) who has greeted the children--and now dances (at a faster tempo).

I love this choreography, but as a story, the scene comes off more as a showcase and a stunt. The children--the prince and Marie--sit in the back and eat sweets and watch the Sugarplum Fairy and various other "sweets" perform, until it is time to go home.

Ditto for the way the story ends. In the City Ballet version, the chords come in and up the sleigh goes, while everyone waves goodbye.

It is perhaps telling that in the 1993 filmed version of the New York City Ballet's Nutcracker, the role of the prince was played by MacCauley Culkin. Note the way he is transformed from Nutcracker to prince.

In the Baryshnikov version, the land of the Sweets begins to fade and Clara wakes up in her house, wondering if the awakening she has experienced was all a dream--though she also feels transformed. (You'll have to ff to 3:30 to hear the music and see the change). It's almost as though she's lived out a parallel version of the Wizard of Oz (movie version), or Peter Pan. Clara traveled to another world, had a magical experience, and wakes up changed.

Ballet companies deal with the issue of romance in the Nutcracker a variety of ways. The Russians follow the Baryshnikov version--to be fair, I should say that Baryshnikov follows the Russian version, because that's probably where he got the idea in the first place. It is just that most western audiences think it's *his* version because the 1977 televised performance was the first look at the romantic Nutcracker that many of us had.

Here's the Bolshoi with a gallant and graceful prince, and a Clara who must now grow up.

In the Bolshoi version, by the time we get to the classic "Sugarplum Fairy and her Cavalier" (which has to be about the most emasculating role since Prince Philip couldn't pass Mountbaten on to his kids), Clara and the Prince and their love have matured. The choreography and very rich and often dark music reflects this.

The action, the music, the story--all are grounded in something that makes sense.

Contrast that with the version where the Sugarplum Fairy and her Cavalier dance. What is it with the tormented music? Why so tormented? They are just dancing for the kids sitting in the back. Here is an example from Tallahassee.

It's funny how the music almost sounds and feels different when it is not connected to the story in a way that is really meaningful. The drama and potential are there--but if the story is missing, then the music loses its meaning too. What's missing? The romance.

There are other ways to deal with the romance, than to either cast children, or adults. The Pacific Northwest ballet uses a young girl in the beginning, then switches to an older ballerina after the Nutcracker becomes a prince. It is often said that by using sets designed by Maurice Sendak, PNB's version of the Nutcracker is "darker"--though, again, if you read the original story and bear in mind that Tchaikovsky would have read it too, I'm not sure how the story could be anything but dark.

In regional performances, principal and soloist dancers from major companies are often brought in to perform the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy, while children dance the roles of mice and toy soldiers. This has been an excellent way to bring "real ballet" and real ballet dancers to cities outside of New York, to demonstrate excellent adult dancing, and to give children a chance to perform--and mothers a chance to compete with each other and to video tape their kids.

Below--some children.

More kids--the girl is 11 and you will need to ff to 2:15.

Below, a more "romantic" Nutcracker, with tweens. The scene is just after the Mouse King is defeated and the curse is broken. This video is from San Diego.

Finally, an example in which a principal dancer--the wonderful Michele Wiles of ABT--is brought in to a regional company--North Carolina. She dances the Sugarplum Fairy with her cavalier. The kids, who presumably danced the first half of the ballet, watch from the side.

And once again, the music feels disconnected from what is happening on stage.

Why, then, is the Nutcracker so popular in America? What's with all the versions?

The short answer, to me, is that Americans love Christmas. It is practically our national holiday, though I realize it is not PC for me to say so. The news watches, breathlessly, to see what we will buy. These numbers tell us "how we are doing." We are, after all, a nation of consumers. The Christmas figures will determine if some business did "well" or "poorly" for the entire year. This may well decid if eyou wake up happy or depressed on January 1st, facing a brand new year, and a mountain a paperwork for your accountant.

But behind all this, there of course a more magical and spiritual dimension to Christmas, coming as it does during the dark time of the year. After Christmas, the days will subtly get brighter. And on the subject of magic--there is the fact that many of us grow up believing in Santa Claus, unable to wait until Christmas morning, only to learn later that Santa does not exist. The magic was created by our parents. Presumably, we grow up to learn of other more earthly pleasures, but the magic of Christmas is gone. There is a reason why: "I felt it was like Christmas" is a phrase often used to describe elation. I can think of two ex-boyfriends who were also ex-drug addicts who described cocaine to me in the same fashion.

As adults, we think of Christmas as having a romantic dimension. This is why we see the infuriating Tiffany ads every December.

It's why movie companies release romantic comedies during December--and why audiences want to go and see them.

The Nutcracker captures this sense of elation, or transformation and of romance. As a child, the presents, the tree, Santa--all are magical. As adults, we know that all this tender magic will fade. We also know that the only hope you will ever have of feeling that kind of magic again as an adult resides in an expensive present, or the ecstasy of falling in love. The story touches on all our favorite fairytale archetypes--Beauty and the Beast, the Wizard of Oz, Peter Pan. The girl gets to be a princess, which, as the merchandise marketers of Disney know, is a sure-fire way to get female attention.

On a final note, I'm curious to see what kind of Nutcracker ABT will unveil. In interviews, Ratmansky, the Artistic Director, seems to hint that, like the Pacific Northwest Ballet, he will use a child and adult Clara--the hybrid solution. He has also noted that Tchaikovsky was in the throes of depression while writing the score to the Nutcracker, something I had not known. One hopes for a Nutcracker that entertains, but listens sensitively to the music.

yay! thanks for aggregating all the video clips for me to watch instead of working! ha.

oh, and what are your thoughts on the big Alastair Macaulay "one sugarplum too man" fiasco?
I know. Anal, right? Youtube is often helpful when you want to compare dance styles.

As for MaCaulay's article--I thought it was a crappy article from the beginning. I thought it was poorly written and edited and a bunch of British puffery (you know--sound all UK and therefore sound smart and therefore get by). I didn't learn anything. The fat comments just sort of seemed part of what was a poorly written piece. Though, if you are curious, you should look at Haglund's blog for a different take.
I have seen the Stowell version in Seattle several times, and saw SF's version as a child. I think you are right about the girl as heroine appeal of this ballet. I like the Stowell/Sendak because of the 2 Claras, but also because there is no deus ex machina sugar plum fairy: the ruler of the magical land is an ill tempered "pasha" who is not unlike a stage director. I'm curious about the newer productions, especially regarding their tech aspects. The kid appeal of the ballet is also important in our town: so many kids participate in dance and theater that it's a real celebration of them.
I also agree with you regarding the national holiday issue and romance issues. But one important item: Nutcracker is the gateway to classical music for many people. Its picaresque quality subverts people's ability to learn more about classical music beyond the melodies, I think, but people continue to support it. Thanks for thinking about this seriously.
Oh, you are so right! The Nutcracker is often the first orchestral piece that people listen to, and fall in love with. It makes sense--dance and dance music are intended to move the body. I also think that when the score to the Nutcracker is grounded in a version that takes the material more seriously, then the music feels so much less cliche.

And then of course, there is Romeo and Juliet, that other gateway ballet . . .
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