A Scrooge, A Clara, A Magical Ballet
What Happens When Bob Cratchit Meets the Nutcracker?
The program title for Hungarian choreographer Youri Vàmos’ The Nutcracker/A Christmas Tale begins with the words: “Not only at Christmas.” I would add: “Especially at Christmas.” While it is true that it that Tchaikovsky’s ballet had to wait more than 60 years to become established as a Christmas tradition, Mr Vàmos’ rendition has Christmas written all over it.
The tale of The Nutcracker has gone through many versions, beginning with Hoffman’s hallucinogenic account of the battles between the seven-headed mouse king and the nutcracker. His story was sanitized by Alexander Dumas (of The Three Musketeers fame) and then further sweetened by Tchaikovsky’s librettist. In none of these versions is Christmas really present. In Tchaikovsky’s hands, it is only a setting for a young girl’s fantasies regarding dolls, sweets, and her prince charming.
By fusing Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol with Tchaikovsky’s version, Vàmos’ Nutcracker, created for the National Ballet’s 2004-05 season, does become a Christmas story. Clara, its young protagonist, is transformed into a member of Bob Cratchit’s impoverished family. Scrooge, instead of giving Cratchit Christmas Day off (as in Dickens’s original story), fires him, thereby reducing him and his family to misery.
A Communist Caricature
To make matters worse, he breaks the nutcracker that Clara had wanted for Christmas. This blackening of his character, which seems to turn him into a Communist caricature of a capitalist, is both funny and to the point. It shows how profound the redeeming spirit of Christmas is.
Scrooge in his dreams is carried off to hell and, in a wonderful scene becomes the plaything of the devil and his minions. The devil, done up in S&M gear, was charmingly presented. Mathias Deneux gave him just the right mixture of humor and menace. Rescued by the spirit of Christmas, Scrooge repairs the nutcracker and learns how to dance. His teachers are the small children who dance with joy at the gift he gave them.
There is more, here, than his sharing their happiness. His learning how to dance, first with small and clumsy steps and then with increased fluidity and grace, is a metaphor for his transformation. Christmas, as we all know, is the story of the Incarnation—of the Spirit of God “overshadowing” Mary and becoming man. Its promise is that the same spirit, if we let it, will transform us. Scrooge, in incarnating the spirit of Christmas, is transformed.
To express this in a ballet that employs Tchaikovsky’s music to its fullest effect is Vàmos’ great achievement. In Vàmos’ hands, dance itself becomes a sign of the Incarnation. It is transformation of humanity into something higher, better than it normally is. The final scene that has Scrooge dancing and giving out presents marks not just the end of his journey. It also indicates a path promised to all by the Christmas season. — oo
– James Mensch
Photo Credits: The Czech National Ballet