NABOKV-L post 0009072, Wed, 24 Dec 2003 16:34:05 -0800

Fw: A little Humbert with your Humbug?
A little Humbert with your Humbug?EDNOTE. In case you are wondering what this has to do with Nabokov, Beth Sweeney has been publishing a series of articles on VN's use of these kiddie-klassiks showing that he was aware of their darker sides.

----- Original Message -----
From: Carolyn Kunin
To: Vladimir Nabokov Forum
Sent: Wednesday, December 24, 2003 3:26 PM
Subject: A little Humbert with your Humbug?

For the List's delectation:

A little Lolita with your Nutcracker?

Sugar Plum Daddy

by Emma Chastain
Only at TNR Online
Post date: 12.23.03

To summon the word "nutcracker," you only have to mention a detail or two: tiptoeing sugar plum fairies, maybe a freakishly large Christmas tree. Like the Super Bowl, the ballet has become a cultural cliché. Most people store a few of its images in the holiday section of their brains.

But while the play traces its roots back to the early nineteenth century novella by E.T.A. Hoffmann, The Nutcracker was almost unknown to Americans until 1954, when George Balanchine choreographed a version for the New York City Ballet. The story told in Balanchine's Nutcracker is a simple one: A little girl, Marie, receives a nutcracker doll from her godfather, Drosselmeier. She falls asleep and dreams that her nutcracker comes to life and sweeps her off to the Land of Sweets. There are a few scary moments--Drosselmeier crouches atop the grandfather clock and flaps his cape, mice the size of grown men menace Marie. But for the most part, safety and sweetness define Balanchine's ballet. Young children play the roles of Marie and her nutcracker prince, and romance is confined to a brief interlude between the sugar plum fairy and her boyfriend.

Balanchine's ballet set in motion a lurching Nutcracker beast, spawning a million copycat productions and wiggling its way into the American consciousness. Each year, the New York City Ballet remounts Balanchine's version, and the media covers, with a great deal of gauzy tenderness, the ordeal of the children who try out for the ballet. Nearly all of Balanchine's imitators stick to his formula, or hold it up as the standard against which their interpretations should be measured. Over the years, this treatment has calcified Balanchine's ballet into a Classic.

This is a shame. Balanchine's ballet is a masterwork, but it misses the spirit of the original story. Hoffmann's Nutcracker is anything but cloying. On the contrary, it is a coming-of-age story full of wit and eroticism and menace. Like the best children's literature (Lewis Carroll is perhaps Hoffmann's closest literary cousin), Hoffmann's novella is both a cozy tale for children and a dark amusement for the adults enlisted to read the tale aloud.

An erotic Nutcracker? Well, yes. Hoffmann's novella covers years, not one night. Better yet, Marie doesn't merely dream her encounter with the nutcracker--he actually becomes a living, breathing young man, one who turns out to be a shameless flirt, no less. Marie must compete with her dolls for the affection of the nutcracker-turned-man, though she of course wins and marries him in the end. And, throughout the courtship, Marie's godfather Drosselmeier provides an altogether creepy frisson. He takes a keen interest in Marie's maturation and stage-manages her romantic encounters.

Drosselmeier is typical of Hoffmann's novella, in which the onset of romantic love is just as disturbing as it is exciting. Marie is fascinated and a little repelled by her nutcracker, who has a "monstrously swollen head .... big protuberant eyes and ... [a] wide, hideously yawning mouth." When the nutcracker doll comes to life and swears his loyalty to Marie, she reacts with a realistic mixture of enjoyment and horror, taking "a strange pleasure in the cold shivers that [run] down her spine."

Besides the ambiguously motivated godfather and the dubious satisfactions of love, there are the nightmarish creatures. Balanchine's mouse king is a comic villain who allows bunny rabbits to tweak his tail. Hoffmann's mouse king is a ravenous terror, calculated to induce maximum fright in the young reader. He visits Marie in the depths of the night, revealing his presence bit by scary bit: "Something ice-cold scurried about on her arm, something rough and disgusting lay down on her cheek and piped and squeaked in her ear.. The horrid King of the Mice sat down on her shoulder; blood-red foam poured from all seven of his mouths."

Only Mikhail Baryshnikov's version of the story, which he staged for the American Ballet Theater in 1977, comes close to doing the original one justice.. The usual partygoers, mice, and Land of Sweets inhabitants all make their appearances, but they are peripheral to the main event: the emerging sexuality of Marie (called Clara in this production). Much of the ballet consists of pas de deux between the two main characters. These shared dances are shy in the beginning, but they turn flirtatious and then unabashedly passionate.

Baryshnikov also gets Drosselmeier right, emphasizing his sinister interest in Clara. This Drosselmeier is a kind of wizard who first creates Clara's dream and then, just as it's getting interesting, enters it himself to rip Clara away from her besotted nutcracker. Baryshnikov also choreographs an erotically charged pas de trois between Clara, the nutcracker, and Drosselmeier. But even Baryshnikov loses his nerve at the last moment: Far from wedding the nutcracker, Clara wakes up on a gray post-Christmas morning to find she has slept on the floor all night and has nothing to show for it but a wooden doll.

Why the reluctance to get the story right? Perhaps, most obviously, because people tend to squirm when confronted with the idea that romantic feelings begin in childhood. Throw in Drosselmeier's Humbert-esque behavior, and Hoffman's original conceit seems to skirt the bounds of acceptable entertainment.. Or at least acceptable family entertainment. One typical reaction, from an Amazon customer, expresses shock at Baryshnikov's portrayal of Marie's godfather and cries out for a return to the "G-rated version" in which "innocent little children all dance together by the Christmas tree."

From the perspective of the production company, that kind of response is obviously troublesome. It's pretty hard to maintain "classic" status when parents refuse to bring their kids to a performance. And since that status is so lucrative--most ballet companies milk The Nutcracker as a cash cow, using the money it brings in to fund other, more experimental productions--economic reasons probably explain most of why Hoffmann has been banished from his own story for so many decades.

But if Hoffmann seems a bit much for the kiddies, consider two other ballets, both of them blockbusters, and both of them, like The Nutcracker, set to music by Tchaikovsky. Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake, billed as wholesome family affairs, deal heavily in death and sex. In Sleeping Beauty, the heroine suffers through years of living death before a prince saves her with a necrophiliac kiss. The heroine of Swan Lake longs for a prince she loves and can't have because a domineering and violent father figure forbids it. Swan Lake also flirts with bestiality--the woman turns into a swan when the sun goes down, which doesn't bother her prince a bit. If these sound like tarted-up takes on beloved ballets, that's only because we've seen them staged so often that their darkness and perversity are familiar. A faithful version of The Nutcracker would, with repetition, take on the same comfortable patina of respectability.

In any case, it's worth a try. According to a recent article in The New York Times, many companies are now finding that their Nutcracker productions no longer rake in the dough they once did. Interest has fallen off as competition has increased in the form of Christmas musicals and traveling Rockettes productions. In this context, ballet companies looking to lure new audiences have little to lose and much to gain by turning to E. T. A. Hoffmann for inspiration. The spicy rum of his story might be just the thing to freshen up those virgin eggnog Nutcrackers we get served every year.