With my modern dance background, I’m a latecomer to The Nutcracker, and came to it back-to-front. That is, I saw some updates (Matthew Bourne’s for Adventures in Motion Pictures, the video of Mark Morris’s The Hard Nut, and Peter Wright’s production for the Birmingham Royal Ballet) before anything that closely follows Petipa’s libretto (Ben Stevenson’s version for English National Ballet). So my experience of the traditional was formed against the background of the updates rather than the other way round. Still, this may not be that unusual, for while the music for The Nutcracker has been less subject to alterations than Tchaikovsky’s other ballets, the same cannot be said for its plot.
And what a plot. In Ballet and Dance: a Guide to the Repertory Peter Brinson and Clement Crisp quote Petipa as considering his libretto ‘très bon‘; but the authors are quick to add, ‘Très bon it is not.’ This indeed seems the general consensus: after all, as David Brown (among others) points out, the plot is pitifully weak, its continuity ramshackle, its characterisation wayward (Dance Now Autumn 1993). As if that weren’t enough, the story (such as it is) peters out by the end of the first act, Act 2 being ‘no more than a gaudy indulgence in tinsel decoration and revolting sugary edibles’. Small wonder, then, that it has so often been reworked and rationalised in an attempt to overcome the flaws in its conception – if ‘conception’ itself isn’t too strong a term, suggesting as it does some coherence behind the plot.
Brown is perhaps overcritical, but his aim is to add rhetorical weight to his subsequent high praise for the ballet (mainly for its music). My motive is also rhetorical, but my praise will be precisely for the flimsy plot. But first, let me consider some ways in which it can be made to make sense.
With its myriad symbols, Nutcracker, invites interpretation. You could, for example, set the domestic realism of the first act against the more imperial splendours of the second: perhaps it’s indicative of an emerging Russian bourgeoisie hankering after the status of the imperial court. Then there are the psychological overtones. Back in 1944 Edwin Denby was already noting that with psychoanalysis ‘practically a household remedy’, Nutcracker positively asks for Freudian reading. In his latter-day Giselle, Mats Ek introduces a doll to represent a fantasised baby: here there is one ready made (the toy Nutcracker), which, particularly as it turns into a handsome prince, introduces a host of darkly Oedipal associations. And there’s the decidedly phallic implications of the Nutcracker, and Clara’s desire for him; or the uncivilised ‘animal’ impulses of the mice to overcome in order to be a proper adult. You can also match up characters in the second act to those in the first, so that it seems to become Clara’s dream expressing her unconscious feelings about her family. Or whatever: the pickings are rich.
What are little girls made of? they ask, and come up with three answers: desire, fertility, ambition.
Some of these meanings can be read into many versions of Nutcracker, though they may not be intended (no matter – my concern here is more with effects than intentions). Bourne, Morris and Wright do, however, make certain themes explicit in their stories. And as with any rationalisation of Nutcracker, they have one main problem: explaining how the second act relates to the first. They each address this by making Nutcracker a story about Clara growing up. What are little girls made of? they ask, and come up with three answers: desire, fertility, ambition.
Sugar and spice
Set in a Dickensian orphanage, in which the children are put to work by the governors, maltreated and generally undernourished in Oliver Twist fashion, Bourne’s Nutcracker is about awakening sexual desire. When the Nutcracker first comes to life he appears as a terrifying giant, lumbering stiffly towards the children like Frankenstein’s monster (male sexuality as a frightening taboo). But he reappears with a phalanx of bare-chested men, now a hotly desirable prince, and Clara is treated to a display of posing and muscle-flexing.
But things are not so easy. Pretty soon her prince has caught the eye of blonde bombshell and rich bitch Princess Sugar (doubling as the governor’s daughter), who coquettishly pretends to twist her ankle. The Prince willingly comes to the aid of this damsel in distress, and off they go together. Oh, the fickleness of men.
Aided by a couple of cupids, Clara is led to the Kingdom of the Sweets, where the wedding of the Nutcracker and Princess Sugar is to take place. But Clara has no invitation, and is left at the gate. A series of guests arrive, including a trio of strutting liquorice allsorts, a druggy, ambisexual knickerbocker glory, a gaggle of party girls (‘marshmallows’) in baby-doll dresses. In contrast to Clara, uncertain and left out, the guests all display a sexual confidence, a sense of belonging to the initiated: they can enter this realm of pleasure, and taste the sweets inside.
Clara nevertheless manages to slip past the doorman, and sees the guests writhing and grinding against the distinctly phallic candles of the wedding cake. Clara witnesses the nightmare ending to her dream, the hedonistic celebration of nuptial union from which she remains excluded, and returns to the orphanage, her desires cruelly unfulfilled. But out of her bed leaps the Prince at last, and they escape through the window to their future together.
sweets are a pivotal symbol in the drama, a hinge to swing between pre- and post-pubescence, to spice up the childhood delights of sugary flavours and gaudy colours with intimations of sexual pleasure.
Expanding (slightly) on the terms used by Petipa, Brinson and Crisp, Bourne’s Nutcracker could be summed up as très bonbon: sweets are used as a pivotal symbol in the drama, a hinge to swing between pre- and post-pubescence, to spice up the childhood delights of sugary flavours and gaudy colours with intimations of sexual pleasure.
Morris’s The Hard Nut goes back to the original Hoffmann tale (where the young girl is called Marie). For a general evaluation of this work I cannot better Joan Acocella’s excellent book on Mark Morris: for my purposes, I will just note that The Hard Nut is about a different kind of sexual awakening, and follows the form of a rite of passage. (A rite of passage transfers a person from one social status to another, and typically has three phases: separation from the everyday world – departure from the initial state; an other-worldly limbo – neither one state nor the other; and reintegration into the world in the new state.)
At the beginning, sexuality is established as separating the adults from the children. The Christmas party is full of flirtations and gropings, but Marie and Fritz are outsiders to these carryings-on, more taken with their toys and rivalries. In the next scene the Rat King bears a distinct resemblance to the lewdest, slobbiest party guest (to whom Marie’s elder sister had naively taken a fancy) – an uncivilised animal contrasted with the heroic Nutcracker. After Marie’s intervention has transformed the Nutcracker into a prince, Drosselmeyer appears, and it is with him rather than Marie that the Prince dances. Dressed in the same outfit to stress their connection, Drosselmeyer seems to act as a kind of father-figure, welcoming the Prince into adulthood.
By breaking into this fantastic ratworld, Marie leaves the everyday world behind her, and enters a state of limbo. She lies in a fever after her ordeal as Drosselmeyer tells her the story of The Hard Nut. This is a rather complicated tale-within-atale; suffice to say that it connects with Act l by matching up its characters: the king and queen are Marie’s father and mother, the nurse is the housemaid, the courtier is Drosselmeyer, and so on – and the whole story is about overcoming a curse set by wicked mice. Once again Marie intervenes in this fantasy, thereby breaking out of her limbo and re-entering the world.
Just as the Prince is welcomed by fatherfigure Drosselmeyer, so Marie’s new status is celebrated by her mother. Here there is a marvellous symmetry with the Snowflake’s Waltz. The snow scene had suggested Marie’s departure from her ordinary state: it is aerial, celestial, other-worldly, pure white; her new state is now honoured in the Waltz of the Flowers, an earthy fertility dance, full of sensual interweavings and luxuriant couplings, in which the dancers wear coloured versions of the snowflake costumes.
Finally, Marie and her Prince dance together, but by this time the story already feels resolved, and the love duet is somewhat tacked on (Acocella notes that it is ‘underchoreograpbed’). The Hard Nut figures growing up less as sexual or romantic desire, with more emphasis on the parent-child relation: Drosselmeyer welcomes the Nutcracker, and Mrs Stahlbaum welcomes Marie into the world of adulthood. There is a romance, but it’s secondary to the celebration of Marie’s new-found fertility.
The turning point
In Wright’s Nutcracker Clara is a young ballet student (whose mother, wouldn’t you know, is a former ballet dancer). She has invited her friends from the ballet school to the Christmas party, and there are hints of a possible romance with a boy from the school, but this isn’t followed up.
Sexuality is to the fore in the next scene when the mice threateningly tear off Clara’s shift, leaving her exposed in a flimsy nightdress. And, unlike in The Hard Nut, Clara and her newly handsome Prince get to dance a romantic duet after the battle.
Continuity is established at the beginning of Act 2 by having the mice return, only to be vanquished once again. Drosselmeyer then introduces all the character dances, in many of which Clara participates, and for the grand finale, Clara turns into the Ballerina (the Sugar Plum Fairy).
Wright’s version of Nutcracker flirts both with suggestions of Clara’s sexual awakening (the boy from the school, the menacing mice, the duet with the Prince), and, implicitly, with the mother-daughter relation (the mother is a former ballerina, Clara becomes one): but the explicit theme is about what Clara wants to be when she grows up. The national dances in which she takes part thus appear as rungs on a ladder leading up to the peak of her career as the classical dancer (whether or not Wright intended this, the hierarchy from character dance to classical pas de deux is certainly there in the ballet’s structure). The basic story is a familiar one in dance, and appears in films such as Fame and Flashdance, as well the more ballet-orientated The Turning Point. In each case, the interest in sex or romance takes a definite second place to the fantasy of achievement: making it as a dancer, becoming a star.
Signs and wonders
Of all the versions here, Ben Stevenson’s sticks most closely to Petipa, and though it makes less ‘sense’, I found it quite wondrous. The story begins in realist mode, with the naturalistic scene of the Christmas party, where boys will be boys, girls will be girls, grandfathers will be grandfathers. All the characters are exactly as they ‘should’ be and everything is familiar: it is a profoundly normal place. The battle with the mice disrupts this, but if the world portrayed here is now out of the ordinary, the mode of representation re mains realist: the story flows along in a readily understandable way, and all events are ascribed appropriate causes and consequences.
So far, so fairytale.
So far, so fairytale. Here, I expected Clara and the Prince to do some kind of duet. But nothing of the sort: a Beautiful Stranger appears, and the Prince dances with her. She floats through the pas de deux barely touching the ground, quite the star. I take a quick look at the programme: the Snow Queen (Stevenson’s introduction, not Petipa’s). A new and important: character? On the programme, yes (she’s given a top billing); in narrative terms, no – she disappears as suddenly as she came, never to be seen again.
Narrative logic is suspended, and Act 2 carries this further. Clara, the central character so far, now becomes an observer in her own story. She is, frankly, sidelined: sitting at the back throughout the act, she doesn’t participate, but simply watches a series of dances whose sole purpose is to delight and exhilarate with their sensual texture, with qualities of colour, elevation, flow, shape, speed, grace. Clara of course registers both delight and exhilaration: here she functions almost like an audience member who happens to be on stage, cuing our own responses to the dancing.
After these dances, the Prince appears for a pas de deux with yet another Beautiful Stranger (also given top billing), the Sugar Plum Fairy. This, the climax of the ballet, is once again pure display, for like the Snow Queen, Sugar Plum vanishes as inexplicably as she emerged. All the wondrous creatures of this fantastic world gradually leave the stage, and at the last possible moment (we already feel the music running out), Clara returns to the real world, and it was all a dream. The End.
It’s not hard to pick holes in this story, for its narrative logic simply dissipates: but how to explain its strange power? Perhaps it has a different kind of coherence. In ‘Meaning in “The Nutcracker”‘ (1944) Edwin Denby suggests one possibility. Using a musical analogy, he argues that, after the pantomime of the first scene, Nutcracker follows the suite method – a series of separate episodes – rather than the more continuous symphonic method, where a theme, a ‘subject’, is followed through and developed. Having dealt with the form, he explains the content in Freudian terms. The aggressive, competitive, ego-centred desires of the first scene, with its sibling rivalry and ‘savagely cruel impulses’, become progressively more civilised, until all selfish desires and conflicts are sublimated into a joyous vision of social harmony. The ordinary and the individual give way to a moral ideal. In other words, it is a journey from ego to superego.
I’m quite prepared to believe that Denby experienced Nutcracker in this way; but I didn’t. For one thing, I didn’t find that the dance suites ‘answered’ the conflict set up in the opening scene, not even in Denby’s ‘unconsciously satisfying’ way. Rather, the conflict is simply dropped, abandoned in snow-filled mid-air. Furthermore, I didn’t see the party as a scene of selfish desires and cruel impulses, but as an idealised portrayal of family life where everything is as it ‘should’ be (though I have to admit that this may amount to the same thing!). Still, for me there was no suggestion of a need for ‘sublimation’ into some other ideal.
So why did I enjoy it? Anyone who’s read my last article in Dance Now will know that I have little taste for realist, linear narrative, and may suspect that my pleasure is nothing more than Schadenfreude: watching just such a narrative collapse and die, and gleefully dancing on its grave. And I confess, this is quite thrilling. But there’s more to it than that: it’s about the difference between childhood and adulthood.
As adults, we can ‘read’ the everyday world around us (indeed this ability to ‘read’ it makes it everyday): we know, more or less, what things mean, how to explain events, who we are. The meaning of the world is taken for granted: it’s basically understandable, a familiar place. The infant, however, doesn’t yet have an identity, a subject, and its world is not ‘read’ – as signs and meanings –but experienced as a flux of sensory perceptions whose significance is as yet unformed.
Stevenson’s Nutcracker isn’t about growing up, but regression. The everyday world of the first scene, with its explanations, its causes and consequences, falls apart, burst asunder by a world of pure spectacle. The first break in ‘readability’ is the Snow Queen’s appearance. Having the star ballerinas play such brief roles as the Snow Queen and the Sugar Plum Fairy brilliantly unsettles our ordinary way of making sense: it’s as effective (if less shocking) as Janet Leigh being killed early on in Hitchcock’s Psycho. (Perhaps, like Psycho, the effect lessens once you’ve seen it.)
After the Snow Queen’s arrival, Clara is no longer the subject of the story; indeed there is no ‘subject’ to it. With no individuality, no self – no ego – Clara becomes like an infant. As if to emphasise this, the one dance in which she participates is with the children of Mère Gigogne. Otherwise, she (like us) passively enjoys the spectacle on stage, the sensual flux of shape, motion and colour whose ‘meaning’ is frankly irrelevant: its sole purpose is to evoke the experience of childhood, with its flow of perceptions and impressions.
As with many myths, this Nutcracker begins as a journey towards adulthood: but at the brink of transformation it turns round and goes straight back – all the way to early childhood, preferring the pleasures of sensual textures over a sensible text, of perceptions over conceptions: or (to be Freudian again) of the id over the ego. Instead of only portraying childhood in literal terms (sweets, bright colours, children dancing), it is also evoked – far more effectively – in the very form of the ballet. The two acts depend utterly on each other for this effect: the world of understandable signs needs to be set against that of inexplicable wonders. This is the power behind the flimsy story: it doesn’t try to cohere – like most retellings – but relies precisely on the incoherence of the infant world. Where events and characters are yet to be given reasons, explanations, meanings.
In any ballet the plot is, of course, only a part of the production, and I found other aspects of ENB’s Nutcracker rather wanting. Compared to the splendid BRB production, the mice were twee, the transformation scene unspectacular (BRB also introduced a huge flying goose to carry Clara to the Kingdom of Sweets, a wonderfully gratuitous touch). ENB’ s snowflakes were also rather sedate, lacking the swirl and flurry of Wright’s or Morris’s. And its designs are sometimes plain tacky: Bourne’s at least are gloriously tacky, with saccharine pinks and yellows so garish that just looking at them makes you feel sticky.
But all the updates consciously strive to make sense, making the second act a consequence of the first, doubling up the characters in each, in order to get across an intelligible message. Nothing wrong with that; but there’s nothing wrong with the traditional story either, where the second act deliberately turns away from the first, opting instead for a world without intended messages, like a sugar coating with no pill inside. Delicious. No need for a fantasised baby here: we become splendidly babylike ourselves. Stevenson is quite justified to stage this version, for contrary to much received opinion, it is indeed très bon, returning us to infanthood, breaking through the ordinary into the magical and turning signs into wonders.