Cracking the Nutcracker

Christmas has come really early chez Pirotta this year: I went to see Northern Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker at the Alhambra Theatre in Bradford last Saturday. All in the name of research, of course.  The Nutcracker is one of the stories that will be in The Orchard Book Of First Ballet Stories.  Indeed, can there be a book of ballet stories without The Nutcracker.  Sleeping Beauty is considered to be the most successful ballet in the world but, at Christmas time, The Nutcracker takes over, especially in the United States where it’s become something of a tradition.

I’ve seen quite a few productions over the years, the first being a touring version by the  St. Petersburg Ballet in Brighton many, many Christmas stars ago.  I thought it overblown but I bet I was the only one in the audience to think so.  On stage, the Nutcracker is always sublime.  The set pieces are awesome, the mis-en-scene always rich and the stage trick with the Christmas tree growing as big as the stage, always elicits a massive round of applause.

National Ballet Theatre of Canada's take on Mr. Drosselmeyer

It’s harder the capture the magic on the printed page, mainly because the storyis…well, to be honest, there’s hardly any story to speak of, and what little there is doesn’t much make for a cohesive whole. A girl called Clara receives a Nutcracker for Christmas.  The Nutcracker turns into a prince and gets attacked by The Mouse King. Clara saves him by lobbing a shoe at the king’s head, an act which in these days of oversensitive audiences usually gets changed to the king being hit by a cushion or trampled on the tail.  As a reward, the prince takes Clara to see his mother in the Land of Sweets where they are entertained by dancing beverages and confectionery.  End of non-story!

The Russian original, commissioned by the Mariinksi Theatre in 1891 as a one act-ballet, was based on Alexander Dumas Snr’s adaptation of E.T.A. Hoffman’s story The Nutcracker And The Mouse King.  Marius Petipa, the intended choreographer sent Tchaikovsky detailed plans of the action he wanted to include.  They added a lot to the spectacle but did nothing to help the story.

This first staging was considered a failure, although a suite of the music became one of Tchaikovsky’s most popular works.  Critics and audiences alike complained that the prima ballerina did not dance till the end of the second act, that the main characters were played by children and that the change from the real world to the fantasy land of sweets was too abrupt and didn’t work.  Most of all, people were disappointed that not much of Hoffman’s story remained.

Later stagings corrected most of these mistakes, mostly because choreographers adapted the work to their particular audience. Nowadays there’s always a prologue which tries to explain why the prince got turned into a nutcracker, and why the toy was given to Clara by her godfather, a magician called Mr Dosselmeyer.  There are also attempts to give a reason for the rodents’ attack on the prince and to establish a link between the prince and the Sugar Plum Fairy, the ruler of the Kingdom of Sweets.  In some versions, the prince is Drosselmeyer’s nephew, Karl, in others he is the heir to a faraway kingdom or the son of the Sugar Plum Fairy herself.  None work entirely.

The ending too is problematic, and open to various interpretations. Some productions have Clara waking up from a dream, some have her meeting Karl on her way to church, so hinting at a budding romance. Others, including the original Mariinksy version, have her being crowned the new queen of the Sweetie Kingdom.   Which one have I gone for?  Well, I’ve settled for the one my readers are likely to see if they go and see the ballet themselves.  It’s also the one that I think gives the story – which after all has to work as a story in its own right, without the help of the ballet’s staging, music and delights – the best narrative arc. If you want to know which one it is, you’ll have to wait until the book comes out….


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