December 04, 2012

“How'd you do? Oh, won't you try a sweet, candy meat good to eat.”

“Do not worry, I'll protect you
 Heroes never do expect you
To defend yourself.
With that awful fear I'll fill them.
With my soldiers I will kill them.
Lay them back on the shelf.”

Of all ballets, the one that nobody seems to take seriously is The Nutcracker. For many people, it's not even a ballet so much as a seasonal tic of the middle class-the thing that Mom takes the kids to in December, like the Christmas windows. And while some versions of The Nutcracker may deserve such treatment, all of them seem to get it.

The Russian original, of 1892, was kicked around by the critics. As for Balanchine's splendid version for the New York City Ballet, the dance critic Edwin Denby quoted a friend's saying, "I could see it every day, it's so deliciously boring." What makes it boring, according to this view, is the banality of its sentiments: that suffocatingly cozy household in act 1 and those damned candy dances in act 2. Then, too, the ballet is weak dramatically, what with no events occurring in the second half. As a dance work, it also has its problems, above all the meagerness of the ballerina role.

The Nutcracker must nevertheless be doing something right, for in spite of these flaws, it is unquestionably the most popular ballet in history, to the point where, for many troupes, it essentially finances the rest of the repertory. The ballet is performed by more than 200 companies in the United States, and in the average case, those four or five weeks of Nutcrackers at the end of the year supply one-third of the company's annual earned income. It's like an annuity. "If we put an ad in the newspaper in June for Nutcracker tickets, we'd sell out in a week," says a box-office manager. The ticket lines for New York City Ballet's Nutcracker are legendary. People come with box lunches and Russian novels, displaying rock-concert-scale devotion.

Dreams are only tears when you're lonely.

Of course, it's not the same ballet that's selling out from city to city. Unlike other ballet "classics," The Nutcracker comes down to us with almost none of its original choreography intact. In any given version, the dances are new and usually belong to that version alone. What Boston's Nutcracker will have in common with Cincinnati's and Houston's is only the great Tchaikovsky score and maybe, if the choreographers of these versions are all tradition minded, the original scenario, with little Clara and the nutcracker and the battle with the mice and the trip to Candyland.

But as you may have noticed, respect for tradition is on the decline; many choreographers have tried to liven up the old dust bag with new concepts, new interpretations. In the Pacific Northwest Ballet's version, designed by the celebrated children's book illustrator Maurice Sendak, Candyland has been replaced by an Oriental seraglio. San Francisco's Nutcracker has a dancing bear; Tandy Beal's production in Santa Cruz had gymnasts and roller skaters.

But by far the most common Nutcracker interpolation is "another level of meaning," with special emphasis on the heroine's supposed sexual awakening. In Baryshnikov's version for American Ballet Theatre, act 2 is forthrightly, though delicately, presented as an erotic dream. ("Yes, I am a Freudian," Baryshnikov confessed.) In Nureyev's version, created for the Royal Swedish Ballet, the sex is laced with violence. The mice, for example, eat the little girls or, in the case of Clara, who is needed later, merely rip off her skirt.
These psychosexual thrillers are based on the widespread assumption that The Nutcracker is a ballet about growing up.

Don't believe it. If anything, The Nutcracker is about what the world is like before you grow up, and why you should not grow up.

As Balanchine put it, the ballet represents "the reality that Mother didn't believe."

It is about miracle and wonder, and how these intrude into everyday life particularly for children, who, according to the romantic beliefs of the nineteenth century, have better access to the sublime than adults do. In the world of The Nutcracker, adults are a bore; it is to children that visions are vouchsafed.

That's what Nutcracker is: a vision, a materialization of everything that is sweet and good heaven imagined by a nine-year-old. And that, I believe, is why people stand in line to see this ballet (at least in its pre-Freudian versions): because at Christmas they want some contact with heaven.

*Complete Story and Music with New Songs Based on the Original Music.  Written by Mel Mandel and Marvin Kahn Based on the Music of Tchaikovsky, transcribed by Ronnie Falca.  Performed by Captain Kangaroo (Bob Keeshan) and the Sandpiper Chorus. Produced by Hudson Productions, Inc.


Clive said...

So we found Drosselmeyer!

Alistair (Land of Calvin) said...

Do not worry, I'll protect you.
Heroes never do expect you
To defend yourself.
With that awful fear I'll fill them.
With my soldiers I will kill them.
Lay them back on the shelf.

I LOVE this thanks!

for those who missed, the bold titles are the soundtrack.