The original story of The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, published in 1816 by E.T.A. Hoffmann, was quite grisly. Set up as a morality tale, Hoffmann's version centers on Marie Stahlbaum, a girl who may or may not be full of delusions. Marie wakes up covered in blood after dreaming about a mechanical doll army that battles a seven-headed-mouse king — she apparently cut herself on a piece of glass. Her unsavory godfather, Drosselmeyer, arrives later and tells Marie the story of Princess Pirlipat, an arrogant brat who is supposed to marry the Nutcracker Prince, but refuses because he is ugly and short. Hoffmann, supposedly a good friend of Edgar Allen Poe, was an influential Romantic author but not a suitable children's author — it was rumored he liked absinthe and opium, and preferred writing about the sordid side of childhood. Alexandre Dumas adapted his story to create the more palatable Nutcracker that we know, which Tchaikovsky turned into a children's ballet in 1891.
Tchaikovsky stayed close to the Hoffmann tale in Act I, structuring Act II more like a classical ballet. In his autobiography he claimed to be unsatisfied with the end result. Yet to Oakland Ballet Company artistic director Ronn Guidi, the ballet version seems marvelous. Guidi played up the romance and sentimentality when creating his own Nutcracker, which focused on the bedazzlement of a young girl. His rendition, written in 1972, begins with a traditional nuclear family (mom, dad, kids, and a governess), and "two magical people who come in" — Drosselmeyer and his nephew, who becomes Marie's love interest. Both the Mouse King and the Nutcracker prince have the hots for Marie, but it's a friendly rivalry. "I tried to take any violence out of it," he explained.
What's best about Guidi's production is that he shores up all the magical elements of the story: the plum that symbolizes warmth and love; the dancing flowers; the fireplace that swells up as Marie is teleported to the land of sweets. On top of that, Guidi worked with the Oakland East Bay Symphony to get the full sweep of Tchaikovsky's music. "Tchaikovsky was a genius," he raved. "If you listen carefully to the grand pas de deux of the Sugar Plum and Cavalier, it's simply the scale going down." Guidi's production is fast-paced and temporally ambiguous, so at the end it's hard to tell if Marie just came out of a dream or a time warp. To him, that's the kind of stuff that keeps audiences engaged — even a Nutcracker audience, in which the number of actual ballet fans is disproportionately small compared to the number of people there under duress. Guidi calls it the biggest public service in the ballet world. Oakland Ballet's Nutcracker plays December 18 through 24 at the Paramount Theatre. $15-$50. ParamountTheatre.com
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