When my daughter Margot was tiny, we got a CD of “The Nutcracker Suite” by Ilyich Pyotr Tchaikovsky, with a storybook to go with it.
The book followed along with the music (Now Clara and her family join in Grandfather’s favorite dance. Now Fritz grabs the nutcracker and breaks it. Now Clara and her nutcracker prince enter the Land of Sweets) and soon we all had the story and music ingrained in our brains.
Margot was a sensitive little girl, and she hated the part where Clara’s brother Fritz breaks the nutcracker. In fact, she was so sensitive she could not bear to listen to the party scene music as it got closer and closer to the part where the nutcracker is broken. There was the time in a supermarket when she had to be held until the fateful moment in the Muzak version passed. And there was the time we went to see my colleague Pete Panych’s daughter play Clara with the Albany Berkshire Ballet and Margot became so agitated I had to carry her around the lobby of the Palace Theatre until after the nutcracker was broken.
“But she missed almost all of Sophie’s scenes,” Pete complained, because most of Clara’s dancing occurs in the first act.
“She’s not even 3,” I said.
I don’t know if it was fate, but about four years later, Margot began studying ballet at a school that performs “The Nutcracker” each winter. Last year — her seventh or eighth “Nutcracker” — she played Fritzie and got to break the nutcracker herself. (Because her school doesn’t have many boys, Fritz becomes Fritzie, Clara’s tomboyish sister.)
A story ballet
Margot’s school performs a shortened version of “The Nutcracker,” but follows the basic ballet story: A family hosts a Christmas party, a magical Herr Drosselmeyer (uncle or godfather) arrives to hand out gifts, and the daughter, Clara, is given a nutcracker shaped like a soldier. Her brother, Fritz, breaks it and Drosselmeyer tries to fix it. That night Clara dreams her nutcracker comes to life, and leads Fritz’s toy soldiers in a battle against a marauding band of mice. Clara saves his life by bopping the mouse queen over the head with a slipper, he turns into a prince and the two travel to a magical land of sweets, headed by the Sugarplum Fairy.
As in so many Tchaikovsky ballets, there are a series of dances representing other countries; in this case the countries are also treats — hot chocolate (Spanish), candy canes (Russian), coffee (Arabian) and tea (Chinese). When you’re in a small school like my daughter’s, you work your way up through roles and play multiple roles each year. Margot has been an angel, soldier, candy cane, marzipan, hot chocolate, tea, flower, the mouse queen, Fritzie, snowflake, and probably some others.
This year she’s a wind-up majorette doll in the party scene, and a candy cane soloist, a flower and a flake again, I think. It’s hard for the ballet parents to keep it all straight.
And the story can be hard to keep straight too, with all the different versions. Drosselmeyer is often played as a magician but he was really a clockmaker, and all his clever stunts (like making windup dolls that entertain at the party) are based on his masterful ability to make things move.
The Pacific Northwest Ballet movie version begins with Drosselmeyer creating some amazing clockwork toys in a doll house. In some versions (including New York City Ballet) the daughter is named Marie instead of Clara. Mark Morris Dance Group has a version called “The Hard Nut,” which is much closer to the 1816 E.T.A. Hoffmann story that all “Nutcrackers” are based on. Except that it’s set in the 1960s.
A story in a story
All versions have the frame of a Christmas party, with Drosselmeyer handing out toys, and a dream (or not a dream) where the mice battle the nutcracker that Drosselmeyer gave to Clara (or Marie).
In the original Hoffmann there’s another story, one that Drosselmeyer tells the children (Louise, Marie and Fritz, but not Clara) to explain why nutcrackers look the way they do. He tells it after he’s fixed the nutcracker Fritz broke.
The story begins with a foolish king and queen who get into a fight with the resident royal mouse family over some bacon. The king sets traps, killing the seven sons of the mouse queen, who retaliates by biting the baby, Princess Perlipat. The bite transforms her from a vision of loveliness to a hideous creature with a big head.
The king then demands that the royal clockmaker (named, like the teller of the story, Drosselmeyer) fix the problem. Or die.
With the help of the court astrologer, Drosselmeyer discovers the princess can be restored by eating the kernel of a hard nut — a nut called Krakatuk — but only if it is cracked and presented to her by a man who has never shaved and never worn boots, and who takes seven steps backwards with his eyes closed after handing the princess the nut.
The two travel the world looking for the hard nut. It takes them 15 years before they finally find it, in Drosselmeyer’s home town. And Drosselmeyer’s nephew fits the astrological description. Because the nut is so hard, they reinforce the nephew’s jaw with a wooden brace, and have him practice on peach pits.
Everything works like a charm. Princess Perlipat, now of marrying age, falls in love with the nephew, who breaks the nut with his strong jaw, presents it with a bow and starts walking backwards. But on his seventh step, he lands hard on the mouse queen, who in her rage turns him into a hideous monster. And, before dying, the mouse queen says her seven-headed son will avenge her.
Perlipat, restored to her angelic beauty, hates the now-ugly nephew, and the king banishes him, Drosselmeyer and the astrologer. And in Drosselmeyer’s hometown, people began carving ugly, big-headed, soldier-style nutcrackers, which crack nuts in their jaws.
That’s the story Drosselmeyer tells the kids. Back in the toy cabinet, where Marie has put her repaired nutcracker, the dolls and soldiers are still having trouble with nightly raids by mice. The nutcracker tells Marie that he could defeat the mice, and their seven-headed king, if only he had a sword. He borrows one from Fritz’s toy soldier, and the next day presents Marie with seven tiny crowns.
Marie tells him that if she were Perlipat, she would never treat him so poorly. The next day, Drosselmeyer returns to Marie’s house, with his handsome nephew. And the nephew tells Marie he was the nutcracker and that because of her steadfastness, the spell on him has been broken.
The assumption in the original version is that even though her parents think Marie was dreaming, it’s all real — the nutcracker did fight the mice, and did turn into a prince. Most ballet versions make it pretty clear it’s all a dream, and after the whole journey through the Land of Sweets the nutcracker is, once again, just a wooden toy.
A story retold
Hoffmann’s story has been rewritten so many times — first in 1844 by Alexandre Dumas, author of “The Count of Monte Cristo” and “The Three Musketeers,” and then by every imaginable children’s book author — that it’s hard to find the original. I searched the libraries, then spent time at a bookstore scanning their catalog with the help of the book-ordering guy, but there were no “Nutcracker” books in stock and it was hard to tell which of the 19 versions I could order would be the true Hoffmann tale.
I do have a great pop-up version, which includes the Perlipat tale (in a little book inside the book). Maurice Sendak’s picture book “Nutcracker” is pretty true to the original too. That’s because Sendak researched Hoffmann while creating sets and costumes for Pacific Northwest Ballet’s version.
The first “Nutcracker” ballet was performed in St. Petersburg in 1892 by the Imperial Russian Ballet, which had commissioned Tchaikovsky to write the music. I think they started from the Dumas version, and since I can’t find a Dumas version anywhere, I don’t know if he included Perlipat. At any rate, the ballet didn’t, and the story was generally simplified and beautified for the Russian audiences.
Perhaps the most famous ballet version is George Balanchine’s, from the 1950s, for the New York City Ballet. All of the school versions you can see around here are based on that, and several of them have guest performers, from the New York City Ballet, dancing the Sugarplum Fairy and her Cavalier.
There are certain elements you’ll find in all versions. The snow scene is one, ranging from the incredible beauty of the Balanchine to a near snowball fight in the Mark Morris. There’s always the question of who the nutcracker is — toy, prince, nephew or all three? The mice always cause problems, even if they don’t bite babies, by fighting the soldiers and the nutcracker, who only loses his ugly nutcracker head after the mouse queen is slain.
Somewhere along the line Marie was renamed Clara, who was one of Marie’s dolls in some earlier versions. For kids growing up in ballet schools, playing Clara is one of the highlights of their “Nutcracker” journeys.
Not for my daughter. She was far happier to play Fritzie, who she says has more spunk than Clara. At her school whoever plays Fritzie also plays the mouse queen, and it’s always fun to play the bad guy, fight the nutcracker and toy soldiers and die in battle, on stage.
You can check it out yourself, even if you don’t have a kid in ballet. Here are the upcoming productions of “The Nutcracker,” by local ballet school companies:
u Northeast Ballet Company: Mainstage at Proctors, Schenectady. Friday, Dec. 3 at 10 a.m.; Saturday, Dec. 4 at 7 p.m.; Sunday, Dec. 5 at 2 p.m. With Wendy Whelan and Philip Neal of the New York City Ballet. More info: myersnortheast.org or www.proctors.org.
u McGuire Ballet: Glens Falls High School, Saturday, Dec. 4 at 8 p.m.; Sunday, Dec. 5 at 2 p.m. More info: 743-1574.
u The Malta Ballet Company: The Egg, Albany. Friday, Dec. 3 at 10:30 a.m. and 12:15 p.m.; Saturday, Dec. 4 at 2:30 and 7:30. Saturday performances feature Rebecca Krohn and Amar Ramasar of the New York City Ballet. More info: 473-1845 or 899-6664.
u Guilderland Ballet: Voorheesville High School, 432 New Salem Road, Voorheesville. Sunday, Dec. 5 at 2:30 p.m. More info: 461-1642, www.theguilderlandballet.org.
u Adirondack Ballet Theater: Charles R. Wood Theater, Glens Falls. Saturday, Dec. 11 at 2:30 and 7 p.m.; Sunday, Dec. 13 at 2:30 p.m. More info: 798-5058 or 798-9663.
u Saratoga City Ballet Company: Skidmore College Dance Theater, Saratoga Springs. Friday, Dec. 17 at 7 p.m.; Saturday, Dec. 18 at 2 and 7 p.m.; and Sunday, Dec. 19 at noon and 3 p.m. More info: www.saratogacityballet.com.
u Albany Berkshire Ballet: The Egg, Albany. Sunday, Dec. 19 at 3:30 p.m. and 7:30; Monday, Dec. 20 at 10:15 a.m. More info: www.berkshireballet.org or www.theegg.org.