Nut Cracking

Life goes on.  The assertion is banal and boring in good times but a comfort the morning after a day of madness.  Parents and grand-parents suddenly recognize blessings they’d forgotten.  So what if our kids aren’t perfect (and who wants perfect anyway)?

And so, while the holiday season pales before the kind of things some people had to live through on December 14th, the calendar turns over whether we’re paying attention or not. 

One of my favourite seasonal celebrations is found in The Nutcracker, Tchaikowsky’s ballet score.  While it’s tempting to play, I try to keep it fresh for Christmas by keeping it locked away until this time of year, to make it especially magical.  I played it at a Christmas party last week, and will play some in church next week.

It was one of many texts shared with children at home.  Sometimes we’d read books together, sometimes we’d watch something on television.   Or in a theatre…!  In revisiting those familiar characters & tunes, I am quickly whisked into a warm Christmas sensibility as surely as if Jimmy Stewart, Alastair Sim and/or Darren McGavin had abducted me. 

There are lots of nuts out there, and so it’s reasonable that there would be a few versions of Nutcracker as well.  There are several audio recordings, which is an entirely different issue.  Right now I’m thinking of the ballet on video.

By a curious coincidence, the progression I experienced through my three favourite versions seems to correspond to my (or our) maturation process.  As we children get a bit older, the versions give us a bit more depth.

Version 1) was the Nutcracker I parented with, a Nutcracker originally from 1977, available in the 1980s on television and captured by me on VHS to be replayed each year, the one with Mikhail Baryshnikov (who’d also choreographed), and Gelsey Kirkland from the American Ballet Theatre.  On video everyone may look as young as Jimmy Stewart or Donna Reed, but this is already 35 years old.

In this reading Drosselmeyer is a benevolent and kind mentor figure, offering a dream to Clara, introducing her to a very careful and safe kind of sexuality.  This is a coming of age myth that’s not conflated with the messier issues in ETA Hoffmann’s original.  You see some of those conflicts in this sample.  There’s a dark tinge that the dream must end: but it’s not tragic, just sad and bittersweet.

Version 2) The Nutcracker (1986) is directed by Carroll Ballard, who also directed Never Cry Wolf & The Black Stallion.  We’re in a film world and so the art-direction (Maurice Sendak’s designs from a previous production) is in vivid colours (much better than the ABT version), captured by wonderful cinematography. Even so, this one is more than a quarter of a century old, sigh…Sendak brings his story-book sensibility, a Freudian world where children face trauma and pain, where nothing is infantilized or under-estimated.

As a result this version is messier.  Drosselmeyer is not only quirky but clearly resembles his sister (Clara’s mom), suggesting levels of incestuous desire pulling at the wholesome fabric of a tale with more depths than you can throw a shoe at.

We see a proper transformation in Clara, from child to adult. .  Maurice Sendak’s design shows his Freudian influences, from childhood to adulthood, meeting a prince on the other side (as the Nutcracker has also been transformed) in a breath-taking series of images. 

Version 3) The Hard Nut choreographed by Mark Morris seems so much newer but sigh alas alack, even this one is from twenty one years ago, in the early 1990s.  It’s edgy in so many ways.

In some ways Morris’ take is more innocent than any other version, invoking the retro wackiness of the 1960s, a world familiar to me from my childhood.  Then it surprises you, as for example in the gorgeous pas de deux between Drosselmeyer and his transformed Nutcracker prince, something i read as a narcissistic moment recognizing that coming of age is ultimately a romance with the self.  It’s unapologetic and yes stunningly beautiful.

Here’s one of my favourite scenes, a deliciously wacky take on the waltz of the flowers.  Yes those are men in tutus and isn’t it beautiful?

~~~~~

If there’s a lesson here –thinking particularly of my recent focus on opera and Regietheater—it’s in noticing how little controversy there is in the dance world.  I’ve lamented to friends that here in Toronto, the National Ballet’s annual version of this cash-cow is so safe and conservative.  But then again I suppose that this is the way a company pays attention to its audience.  Yet I wonder if Karen Kain and her National Ballet were to embrace the dark side –whether in Sendak’s sense of primal psychology or in Morris’s sense of adventurous mise-en-scène and playfulness—whether there would be any payback.  She /they have a captive audience every year.

Sigh, yet while I may dream that some day we’ll see something deeper and more dangerous from the National, I need to remember where we started this discussion.  Today is all about safety, and I will not criticize anyone who wants to retreat into any kind of cocoon.

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