Friday, December 18, 2009

Variations on a Theme

It has been an interesting thing to read and watch different versions of The Nutcracker. My kids are learning that a story can have countless variations. Different characters may appear or be left out, the setting or mood may change, the emphasis of the story may vary—but the story is still recognizable as “The Nutcracker”. The idea that an author or artist or choreographer can make the story their own is a powerful one. The idea that there is more to the creative process than making something new, that you can layer your own insights and ideas over the frame of a well-known story, opens up a whole new world.

At the risk of over-saturating your holidays with Nutcrackers, I thought I’d continue what I started Wednesday and offer a few more variations on a theme.

Picture book retellings of the story:
The NutcrackerThe Nutcrackerby Susan Jeffers, Harper Collins Publishers, 2007
This retelling is from the ballet, and many of the illustrations make you feel like you are on stage with the dancers, a perspective I sometimes found myself wishing for when I had to sit at the back of an auditorium.

Nutcracker BalletNutcracker Balletby Vladimir Vagin, Scholastic, 1995
This is another retelling from the ballet, although I recognized more elements from E.T.A. Hoffman's story, and the pictures alternate between stage settings and a more fairytale-like setting.

The Nutcracker Ballet (Step Into Reading: A Step 3 Book (Prebound))The Nutcracker Ballet (Step Into Reading: A Step 3 Book (Prebound))retold by Deborah Hautzig, illustrated by Carolyn Ewing
This is a nicely-done reader that walks the reader through the ballet.

E. T. A. Hoffman's fairytale:
Nutcrackerby E. T. A. Hoffman, pictures by Maurice Sendak, translated by Ralph Manheim, Gramercy Books, 1984 (102 pp.)
This book started with the production Sendak designed for the Pacific Northwest Ballet in 1983.  He wanted to do something that was more true to Hoffman's tale, and ended up creating this book, as well, which uses Hoffman's text and is darker and more complicated than the ballet version (which is usually based on a version of Hoffman's story written by Alexandre Dumas).

I discovered, too, that Maurice Sendak wasn't the first American to try to bring back E. T. A. Hoffman's story.  I don't have any links for you, but if you can find it, The Nutcracker of Nuremburg:  A Christmas Fantasy Based upon the Old Hoffman Legend, written and illustrated by Donald E. Cooke (John C. Winston Company, 1938, 148 pp.) is another retelling of Hoffman's story (as opposed to a retelling of the ballet), and is worth looking into. 

Books about dancing in the Nutcracker Ballet:
Lili on Stage
Lili on Stage by Rachel Isadora, G. P. Putnam and Sons, 1995
This is a story about a girl who performs in the ballet as a guest in the first scene.  It follows her backstage, warming up, putting on makeup and costume, and shows the behind-the-scene activity of a ballet production.  The text is simple, but it gives a good idea of what it is like to be part of a ballet performance.

A Very Young Dancer by Jill Krementz, Alfred A. Knopf, 1985, is a more detailed, true-life portrayal of a girl who is chosen to play the part of Mary in a Balanchine production of The Nutcracker with The School of American Ballet.  The author follows a girl named Stephanie through auditions, rehearsals and performances of The Nutcracker, giving a first-person account of what the experience is like.

The Music of The Nutcracker:
Tchaikovsky Discovers AmericaTchaikovsky Discovers America Classical Kids CD (there's also a book: Tchaikovsky Discovers America but I prefer the CD because of the musical excerpts.)  This is a story that combines historical information about Tchaikovsky with a fictional family of Russian-American immigrants that he meets while working on The Nutcracker in America.  I think all the Classical Kids CDs do a good job of integrating the music and biographical information with an entertaining story.  My children have become familiar with a lot of classical music while listening to the CDs in this series.

One more variation:
Harlem Nutcracker, TheHarlem Nutcracker, The text and photography by Susan Kuklin, Hyperion Books for Young Children, 2001.  Based on the ballet by Donald Byrd, this is a retelling of the Nutcracker danced to music by Duke Ellington.  In this version Clara is a grandmother struggling with the loss of her beloved husband and a family that appears to be growing apart.  Her dead husband appears to her as the nutcracker, and their battle is with Death instead of the Mouse King.  Instead of journeying to the Kingdom of Sweets they visit a Harlem Renaissance-era Club Sweets, and the dancing is jazz, not ballet.  Although this is a moving story in picture book format, I don't recommend it for young children due to the portrayal of Death coming for Clara. 

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