Every once in a while, a ballet company will pull the ghastly thing out: the seven-headed Mouse King costume for The Nutcracker.
No matter how you slice it, a seven-headed mouse is a pretty sick sight, particularly if it is carrying a sword and leading a troupe of other, albeit one-headed, mice. What on earth could it be doing in a sweet holiday confection like The Nutcracker?
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Ah. In that question lies an assumption that the holiday classic we know began as a sweet bedtime story. Like many classic fairy tales — Brothers Grimm, anyone? — Nutcracker was born of darker stuff.
In the tale we usually see on the stage, the battle between the Mouse King and the title character is dispatched fairly quickly in the first act, and then it's off to a land of snowflakes and sweets.
But E.T.A. Hoffmanm didn't have entertaining little girls in mind when he published The Nutcracker and the Mouse King in 1816.
A man of many talents
Hoffmann himself was quite the multitalented artist, composing operas and symphonic works as well as writing novels and criticism, and painting in Europe during the late 1700s and early 1800s.
"I've heard some of his music, and it is gorgeous," says Luis Dominguez, artistic director of the Lexington Ballet, which presents The Nutcracker during the next two weekends.
Hoffmann's stories inspired more than just Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky, who wrote the iconic score for the Nutcracker ballet. His stories and his life were the inspiration for Jacques Offenbach's opera The Tales of Hoffmann, and two Hoffmann short stories inspired Léo Delibes' ballet Coppelia, also about a doll come to life.
But many of these tales, including Nutcracker, were written to illuminate dark corners of the human condition by a man who never married or had children and suffered through turbulent times in early 19th-century Europe.
Hoffmann's Nutcracker starts with a Christmas party, where a little girl receives a beloved soldierlike nutcracker that comes to life to do battle with a nasty mouse king.
But the battle is not as decisive as it is in the ballet. The girl, Marie, tries to defend the nutcracker, but she is knocked unconscious. While Marie is recovering, her godfather Drosselmeyer tells her the story of a beautiful princess, cursed by the Mouse King's mother to be ugly. The only way for the curse to be broken is for a handsome man to crack the hardest nut in the world and take her hand in marriage.
Drosselmeyer's nephew succeeds in breaking the nut and the spell, but then the curse falls on him when he accidentally steps on the Mouse King's mother. He is now an ugly nutcracker.
The story leads back to Marie, who aids the nutcracker that's now in her care in defeating the Mouse King. They then go to the land of dolls, and later Marie breaks the curse by telling the inanimate nutcracker that she would love him no matter what he looked like.
It's a bit more complex than a bunch of snowflakes and a sugarplum fairy, eh?
Tchaikovsky and writer Marius Petipa based their Nutcracker on the adaptation of the Nutcracker story by Alexander Dumas, of Three Musketeers and Count of Monte Cristo fame. (Count, by the way, contains a reference to Hoffmann, further illustrating how interwoven the 19th-century literary world was.)
A nod to the original
Dominguez, of the Lexington Ballet, pays homage to the original story by naming his leading girl Marie, instead of Clara, as she is in most Nutcracker productions, and by highlighting Drosselmeyer, the catalyst for most of Hoffmann's story. (But there's no seven-headed Mouse King in his show.)
For the Bluegrass Youth Ballet's Nutcracker in One Act, director Adalhi Aranda Corn adapts the story even further, making Clara a grown-up whose daughter discovers the Nutcracker and goes off on Mom's big adventure. Corn says that her aim was to get past what she says can be a "tedious" party scene and on to the action of the battle and the land of sweets.
Like Dominguez, Corn says she has read the original book. "I always like to know where the things I'm performing come from," she says.
Corn attributes The Nutcracker's enduring appeal to Tchaikovsky's music.
"At this time of year, you turn on the TV and you hear that music. You get in the car and you hear that music," Corn says. "It's everywhere, but that also gives you an in, because if someone comes in who knows nothing about that story, once you start playing the music, they're hooked."
Dominguez says, "It's a phenomenon. There's a big demand for it every year.
"I think it's because people want to have a celebration and want to find beauty in everyday things."
They can even find beauty in a story that wasn't very pretty to begin with.