Wednesday, May 9, 2012

thank you, Maurice

I grew up watching The Nutcracker. Specifically, the Bolshoi Ballet's production and the Pacific Northwest Ballet's production. And later on, the Balanchine (New York City Ballet) and Royal Ballet productions. The PNB's version was designed by Maurice Sendak.

Sendak died yesterday, after "suffering a stroke on Friday night." He was best known for Where the Wild Things Are, but I associate him more with his production of The Nutcracker, which premiered in December 1983. The Royal Ballet (which I saw for the first time a few years ago) and NYCB productions are the closest to my idea of a "perfect" Nutcracker, but early on I was heavily inspired by the PNB production. Particularly, the choreography in the Childrens' Galop and at the end of the Waltz of the Snowflakes. But also the costumes in the party scene, and it was then that I fell in love with empire waists (okay, the A&E/BBC Pride and Prejudice also had something to do with that). I also loved (and wanted) the costume that Clara wears post-transformation during the Journey to the Land of Snow--I still do, in fact.

It also scared me: at the end of the battle scene, a large tail suddenly appears on the right-hand side (I'm guessing it's the Rat King's). That thing scared the crap out of me every time when I was little (though it wasn't as bad as Von Rothbart in the Fonteyn/Nureyev version of Swan Lake, which I also grew up on). But that was one of the things that made Sendak Sendak: he knew that childhood isn't all rosy and pastel colours--there's some darkness mixed in, too. A lot of what makes us who we are as adults--good or bad--occurs in childhood, and he knew that. That's why he didn't shy away from creating things like Where the Wild Things Are, though other adults, wanting to preserve their childrens' innocence, disagreed.

Sendak's Nutcracker was intended to be truer to Hoffman's original story than a lot of productions out there. In the Hoffman tale, there's a story-within-a-story called The Hard Nut that Herr Drosselmeyer tells Clara when she's stuck in bed for several days due to the injuries she receives from the rats. It's about how the Nutcracker became the Nutcracker, and when Tchaikovsky wrote the ballet, he had to leave it out (probably because it would've made the ballet too complicated). However, Sendak added a piece just before Clara's dance with the Nutcracker. It tells the story-with-a-story, and is set to music from one of Mozart's operas (Mozart also appears as a bust on top of the Stahlbaums' toy cabinet). I didn't understand what that dance was about, or why it was added, until years later when I read an English translation of the Hoffman story, as Sendak talked about the story-within-a-story and his views on (to him) the oversimplification of the ballet in the introduction.

Thank you, Maurice, for making my own childhood that much more memorable, and for providing some of the inspiration for my dream Nutcracker.

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