Getting a Handle on The Nutcracker
The Nutcracker ballet premiered in 1892, and since then, dozens of variations have all but obscured the story’s original plot.
The Czech National Ballet’s Petr Zuska sorts out the origins for us, and explains his version, The Nutcracker and the Cuddly Mouse, premiering Dec 3-4 at The National Theatre.
The Confusion Begins with a Nutcracker
For most of us, a nutcracker is a small silver tool you hold in your hand to crack open walnuts. The most balletic thing about it are its two ″legs″ which might look like a dancer’s legs.
So how can what is, really after all just a fancy pair of pliers, be a central character for a ballet?
The explanation is that the Nutcracker character is usually portrayed as the typical 1800s-era tool, a cylinder painted to look like a man.
But in the traditional ballet, ″There is no story that would logically explain the Nutcracker [character],″ says Petr Zuska. ″The world does not see the reason why the Nutcracker is just standing under the Christmas tree, why the Nutcracker fights the soldier, why there is a mouse king … .″
That’s because the traditional ballet comes from a story, The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, by German author E.T.A. Hoffmann (1776-1822). But when Marius Petipa wrote the libretto for Tchaikovsky’s music, he eliminated about a third of the story – and some of the story’s continuity.
Nonetheless, late 19th century audiences were captivated by the music and dance, and this version has been produced literally for generations ever since. (In fact, Petr Zuska danced several of the roles himself when he danced in Montreal, 2000-2002, such as the solo in the “Russian Dance,” the main pas de deux in “The Waltz of the Flowers,” and others.)
Confusion Continues with Name Changes
In Hoffmann’s original story, the main character is Marie; she has a doll named Clara. Yet in many productions, the lead is named Clara. ″I really have no inkling as to why,″ Petr Zuska says. Clara the doll plays a minimal role in the original story, and so doesn’t appear in the Czech National Ballet’s new version.
As the new production’s choreographer, Mr Zuska has also changed the title. It’s certainly more child-friendly as The Nutcracker and The Cuddly Mouse (Louskáček a Myšák Plyšák). ″Myšák Plyšák″ translates as the ″plush toy mouse,″ and it’s also fun to say (MEE shahk PLEE shahk – try that three times fast).
The new version also gives young viewers the security of recognizing a familiar place by cleverly setting it in a kind of stylized Old Town Square. ″I spent my childhood in Prague,″ he says. ″For me, Christmas is connected with this milieu and, after all, the premiere is given by The National Theatre in Prague. So, why not?″
The Nutcracker meets Dickens
Finally, some audiences expecting the traditional Nutcracker may have been a bit confused by Youri Vàmos’ version at the Czech National Ballet, running for the past 11 years. ″He combined it very cleverly and sensitively with Dickens’ A Christmas Carol,″ Petr Zuska, also the ballet company’s artistic director, explains.
″It was very specific and absolutely logical, which is something the majority of the classic conceptions of The Nutcracker lack. That is why I believe that now, after some 11 years, staging an ordinary Nutcracker would be dramaturgically wrong.
″I had a certain idea from the past, and I am able to knit it together with the classical motion vocabulary and structure, so I said to myself:
″The time has come.″
And so it has: Petr Zuska’s The Nutcracker and the Cuddly Mouse premieres Dec 3-4 at The National Theatre, with further performances scheduled Dec 6, 8, 12, 18, 19, 21, 22, 25 and 31; and Jan 2, 5, 12, and 13.
Read more from Petr Zuska about his The Nutcracker and the Cuddly Mouse in our Re:Source section, the black tab at the top of this page.
–Mary Matz, Opus Osm editor
Photo Credits: Of ballet rehearsals, Mário Bakuš; of nutcrackers, Wikipedia