Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Snowflakes and Sugarplums

I love the Nutcracker Ballet. Now, maybe it wouldn’t have the same sort of magic for me if I had spent more of my adult life gigging in big cities and playing numerous versions of it. As it is, I’ve only played one run of it in my life. I was pregnant with my third child and exhausted, and I pretty much cried through every performance.  I’m sure it wasn’t just hormones, though. The combination of story, music, costumes, and dance are definitely the stuff of dreams.

Our family isn’t going to get to see (or play) a live version this year, so I’ve been looking for other ways to immerse ourselves in this December tradition.

The fairytale:
E.T.A. Hoffman wrote the fairytale on which the ballet is based in 1816. We’ve been reading this versionby Anthea Bell, illustrated by Lisbeth Zwerger. The pictures are beautiful, and it’s been interesting to see how the story and ballet are different.

The music: 

This is the kind of stuff that shakes the windowpanes at our house. The kids love to blast the Nutcracker Suite (among other things) and dance wildly in the living room. Sometimes with costumes. The injuries have only been minor so far, and I have to say, it’s pretty fun to watch. I’ve been known to dance with them, too. I love Tchaikovsky’s use of lower-voiced instruments for melodies— lots of viola, cello and low woodwinds. And the Grand Pas de Deux (although it’s not part of the Suite) gives me chills every time—what that man can do with a descending scale!

The ballet: 
The ballet premiered in 1892 with music by Pyotr Ilyitch Tchaikovsky and choreography by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov. Interestingly, the shorter Suite that Tchaikovsky put together became popular right away, while the entire ballet didn’t really take off until the 1950’s. We’ve watched several versions by different choreographers, and it’s been interesting to see how they are different. I think it’s eye-opening to the kids to see that you can take a story and make it your own. This is the version we’ve been watching this year. We miss Mother Ginger, but watching Baryshnikov dance is awfully cool.


  1. original story very dark. was childhood harder that century? jessie danced half a dozen nutcrackers with MDT. matt danced many cardboard sword fights as a 4 and 5 yr old--a la mikhail. jumping up and twirling 180 in the air, no joke. we went through so many cardboard boxes those two seasons!

  2. I did a little more checking around--Alexandre Dumas wrote a version of the story that was less dark, and it was that version that Petipas used for the ballet. I don't think it was originally meant for children.

    What a fantastic experience to get to dance it! There's nothing like knowing it from the inside.

    I believe it about the cardboard boxes. Ours get used for all sorts of things, too, although no swords so far. (That may change, as my son has taken to reading this blog!)


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