The (Nutcracker) Prince and Me

This post has been included in this year’s Best of Holidailies collection!

A Very Young Dancer

Hi, I’m Melissa, and I’m addicted to The Nutcracker. Oh, not the story by E.T.A. Hoffmann, but the ballet based upon the story. You know the one – it has music composed by Tchaikovsky, and everyone trots it out in December.

I blame my Auntie Annette for this addiction. Of course, she wasn’t really my auntie at all, but a dear friend of the family, one who always seemed to waltz, rather than merely walking, wherever she was going, and who always smelled like the forest at Christmas, even though I’m pretty sure the most rural place she ever lived was Connecticut.

Every junkie has a gateway drug, and mine was a book called A Very Young Dancer, by Jill Krementz. It’s not a story, so much as a captioned photo-essay about a young girl named Stephanie, a student at the School of American Ballet, the feeder school for the New York City Ballet, who is cast as Marie in the annual production of – you guessed it – The Nutcracker.

It was Auntie Annette who gave me the book – a book I still have, by the way, the year I was six or seven. (Amazon says the publication date was October 1976, but I’m pretty sure I had it in August. Then again, Auntie Annette had connections so it’s very possible she gave me an advance copy. I have vivid memories of being the first of my friends to know anything about this book.)

Let’s assume my memories are correct, and I was six. I was still taking ballet lessons then, and I have an equally-vivid memory of another aunt’s dog eating my ballet slippers the following summer. But really, it doesn’t matter, that book got me hooked on The Nutcracker, and I remain loyal to it decades after I stopped taking ballet lessons, or, in fact, any kind of dance classes whatsoever.

But isn’t The Nutcracker the first ballet for almost every little girl? I mean, I guess some kids see Coppelia first, but it’s not quite as engaging, or as magical. (By the way, has anyone noticed how many ballets are based on some kind of doll coming to life? Not just ballets, actually, but children’s stories in general.)

My earliest memory of seeing The Nutcracker live is when I was nine and we lived in Arvada, Colorado. My best-friend-at-the-time and I had been in a fight for the weeks leading up to the performance, but our mothers had bought a row of seats for the four of us and her little sister. Each of us, independently, had worked out how our mothers would sit next to each other, with us on their far sides, so we wouldn’t have to talk.

Of course, by the time the actual day came, we’d started speaking again, which both good – because for weeks afterward we did our best to recreate the ballet in their basement bedroom – and bad – because my mother worked with one of the dancers, or knew her mother, and had arranged for us to go backstage, and that meant I had to share the experience.

My addiction was cemented at that point.

Since then, I’ve seen numerous productions, both live, and on video. San Francisco Ballet’s version is one of my favorites, but I grew up on PBS’s annual airing of the ABT version with Mikhail Baryshnikov & Gelsey Kirkland, and that’s still the one I know best. I’ve seen the movie that was made out of the Pacific Northwest Ballet’s version (which features sets designed by Maurice Sendak. (Yes, that Maurice Sendak.) It’s a favorite as well, and just the other night I was watching a version of the NYC Ballet’s interpretation that was filmed years ago, and features a Home Alone era Macaulay Culkin as the Nutcracker/Prince.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve started to see different things in the different versions of the story.
For example, Marie (who is sometimes Clara), is often played by a child, as is, in fact, the Nutcracker Prince. These interpretations usually have lots of children in the first act, and very few in the second (only those who pop out from under Mother Ginger’s skirt), while Marie and the Prince pretty much just watch Act II from a throne all the way upstage.

Other interpretations use an adult dancer as Marie/Clara, or at least an older teenager, and play up her budding romance with the Nutcracker/Prince. Sometimes they even get an Act II pas de deux.

The Nutcracker/Prince is often introduced in the Act I party scene as Drosselmeier’s apprentice or nephew, which means that, if Drosselmeier isn’t merely an ‘affectionate’ uncle, Marie and the boy are kissing cousins.

A rare few interpretations (and Pacific Northwest Ballet is one of them) add a dash of unresolved sexual tension between Marie/Clara and Drosselmeier. (There’s a fanfic waiting to be written.)

I haven’t catalogued all the details of every production, obviously, but I do know this: during December there is a version of the Nutcracker playing somewhere almost every day. In the next two weeks, my DVR will be recording at least six different productions, only one of which I’ve seen before. There are at least seven local live productions of the ballet happening in the same time period, within 30 miles of my house. (I might drag Fuzzy to one. He’s never been.)

I prefer the live performance experience: the thrill when the overture starts to play, the way the audience always gasps when the Christmas tree starts to grow (which is really Marie/Clara shrinking, of course, but…it’s still cool), the little girls all dressed up for what is, for many, their first time in a real theater, and the obligatory trip to get hot chocolate (when I was a kid) or Irish Coffee (now) afterward. I love the pure dancing in Act II, when the Sugar Plum Fairy dances with her cavalier, and the Dew Drop Fairy dances with her flowers.

But even if we don’t make it to a live performance, I’m looking forward to having a few dates with my Nutcracker Prince over the weeks between now and Christmas. He’ll bring the great music and muscular thighs, and I’ll bring coffee, Danish butter cookies, and my appreciation of the arts.

And when Christmas comes, and the magic is over for a year (because a post-Christmas Nutcracker is just as sad as the early morning walk-of-shame after a poorly chosen one-night stand) I’ll put my Nutcracker, the one sent to me from Germany, back in its box, and focus once more on more contemporary stories.

But only until next year, of course.

I mean, you can only go so long until your next “fix.”


Holidailies 2014

Thursday 13: At the Ballet

I don’t like the room to be quiet when I’m writing, but there are only certain types of non-quiet that don’t distract me. For example, when I’m writing for work, or just reviewing and approving websites for a coppelia_bolshoi11-300x200 directory I help maintain, I can play DVDs of familiar TV shows or movies – generally those that have snappy dialogue (Pretty much anything Aaron Sorkin ever wrote, Gilmore Girls, Sex and the City, and a good portion of Joss Whedon’s creations.)

When I’m writing something that requires actual thought, however, I prefer to have music playing, but there I run into trouble, because if the music has lyrics I want to get up and sing instead of staying in my chair and writing. At times, if I’m writing something that fits with it, I can listen to French pop-jazz – artists like Sanseverino. Often I listen to jazz and blues, but that can make me moody, and even without lyrics, there’s enough story in that type of music that I can’t just have it on as background music.

As the final days of summer spiral away, and my mailbox begins to fill with ticket offers for various Christmas concerts and performances of The Nutcracker, however, I find myself listening to the soundtracks – scores, really – of various ballets. I like the old classical ones because they’re full symphonies and generally pretty long, with enough variation that I don’t get bored but a unity of tone that gives just enough story to keep writing, but no so much that I want to go watch every single dance film on Netflix.

The practical upshot of all this? My Thursday 13 this week is a list of the ballets I particularly love:

  1. The Nutcracker (Tchaikovsky): Yes, it’s a Christmas story, but the music is so familiar and infectious I can’t not love it, and it really brings E.T.A. Hoffmann’s tales to life. Also? Duke Ellington’s album Three Suites features jazzed up versions of many of the more familiar elements of The Nutcracker. I’ve seen it live in San Francisco and Denver, and never miss the ABT (American Ballet Theater) version from the 70s (Baryshnikov/Kirkland) when it’s aired on PBS every December.
  2. Cinderella (Prokofiev): I worked props for the Fresno Ballet production of Cinderella all through high school, and grew to love the music. To this day, when I hear certain phrases, I can see the prancing ponies in my head.
  3. Giselle (Adam): How can you not love a ballet that was partly inspired by Victor Hugo’s novels, and partly inspired by St. Vitus’ dance. It’s haunting and creepy and completely wonderful. Incidentally, the title role in Giselle is probably the most coveted in all of ballet. The movie Dancers from sometime in the 80s (I think) starring Baryshnikov, was about a dance company doing a touring production of Giselle. The plot was absurd, but the dancing was breathtaking.
  4. Coppelia (Delibes): Like The Nutcracker, Coppelia was inspired by E.T.A. Hoffmann’s stories, particularly “Der Sandmann” (“The Sandman”), but it’s also special because it marked the first use of automatons and marionettes in ballet. Because it is a fairly light story, this ballet is often used to introduce children to the art form.
  5. Romeo and Juliet (Prokofiev) Yes, it’s the ballet version of Shakespeare’s play. Yes, it’s an iconic ballet. The modern version still retains much of the mood and story from the version Prokofiev composed for the Kirov Ballet in 1936.
  6. Sleeping Beauty (Tchaikovsky): There were actually several other ballets based on the tale of Sleeping Beauty (which, itself, has a dual source of Perrault and the Brothers Grimm), but Tchaikovsky’s has become the standard. It premiered in 1890 in St. Petersburg, Russia, but a later production served to introduce ballet fans worldwide to Rudolph Nureyev. A very young George Balanchine made his own ballet debut in a production of Sleeping Beauty.
  7. Swan Lake (Tchaikovsky) This was the composer’s first ballet, and its initial reception was actually not that great, but today it’s probably the first ballet most people think of. My first introduction to it was via a music box I was given as a child, and I met it again as a slightly older child when my ballet teacher in Georgetown, CO, (David something. He had amazing thighs.) taught us all the “swan curtsey.” If your first introduction to Swan Lake was through the movie The Black Swan, you have my sympathy. Please wash your eyes and brain out with a double feature of The Turning Point (which was made in the 1970s and featured a recently-defected Mikhail Baryshnikov) and The Company, starring Neve Campbell (who actually had some real dance experience) and members of the Joffrey Ballet.
  8. Don Quixote (Minkus): This is one of those great ballets that came out of the Bolshoi in the late 1800’s, and has gone through many incarnations. Yes, it’s based on the same novel by Cervantes that inspired the Broadway musical Man of La Mancha, and both are fantastic in their own ways, but the ballet is something truly special, especially when you have really strong male dancers.
  9. La Sylphide (Løvenskiold): There are actually several versions of this ballet about a Scottish farmer who falls in love with a Sylph, and the original, staged by Taglioni, even used different music, but it’s the Løvenskiold music that I’m most familiar with (and, in fact, am listening to as I write this). Btw, there’s another ballet called Les Sylphides that also involves a man falling in love with a forest spirit, but it’s got completely different music and choreography, and is staged as a short ballet.
  10. The Firebird (Stravinsky): Like many ballets this is based on fairy tale, but this time it involves thirteen princesses (making it appropriate for a T-13 inclusion, yes?), forbidden love, and a stolen egg. Jerome Robbins choreographed the best-known version of this ballet when he was at NYCB (New York City Ballet).
  11. The Red Shoes (Easdale): Okay, technically, The Red Shoes is a movie about a ballet called The Red Shoes, which ballet was created just for the movie. But, honestly, does anyone watch this for the plot? Of course not, we watch it for the dancing (and more than one ballet company has staged the ballet itself, since the movie came out in 1948). By the way, the ballet within the movie was based on Hans Christian Andersen’s story entitled – you guessed it – “The Red Shoes.”
  12. Fancy Free (Bernstein): This is another Jerome Robbins piece, set to music by Leonard Bernstein, and it’s a ballet about three American sailors on leave in New York City. If that sounds familiar, it’s because the musical On the Town was actually inspired by the ballet. If you’re like me, you saw the movie version of On the Town (starring Gene Kelley, Frank Sinatra, et al) first, and thought the movie inspired the ballet. (I was fourteen when I asked my dance teacher, who was staging it at his ballet company, for the real story.)
  13. The Hard Nut (Tchaikovsky): If you begin a list with The Nutcracker, it only makes sense to end it with The Hard Nut, the sexy, dark, irreverent version of the same story (one that’s actually more in line with Hoffmann’s original tale). Yes, the music is the same, but this time it’s set in the 50’s, and the toy soldiers are actually an army of G. I. Joe dolls. This version was choreographed by Mark Morris, and features men en pointe as well as some subtle homosexual themes.