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From Hoffman to Sendak: The Study of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite

If one were to search these pages—The Ampersand—one might find annual mention of Lake and Park’s stance toward the winter holidays.  I will repeat it here for the benefit of those new to our traditions. When it comes to the holidays, we seek to be relevant to the children’s enthusiasm for this most special time of year, sensitive to all of the children’s respective traditions, and, of course, be educationally informative.  In past years, we have studied the winter solstice, the gingerbread man and his folktale cousins, Saint Lucia Day, a Nordic tradition, Hanukkah, astronomy, the biology of conifers, and The Nutcracker Ballet.


This year, we were able to study the traditions of Hanukkah in late November and early December and still had time to explore the story of “The Nutcracker”, the history of its production, and various choreographic interpretations.


Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet Company is unique in its position in that its Nutcracker, such a standard for many companies, is the only one in the world with sets and costumes designed by Maurice Sendak. Departing from book illustration in mid-career to work on various theatrical set and costume designs, he was commissioned by PNB . New choreography by the company’s then director accompanied the scenery. Their collaborative take premiered in 1983. Our timing this year was perfect, coinciding with the thirtieth anniversary of the production.


In deciding which direction to take, Sendak went back to the Hoffman tale. (This version is now widely available in book form with the illustrations Sendak drew in response to the Hoffman narrative.) Hoffman’s tale within a tale: “The Story of the Hard Nut “is integral to understanding the deeper motifs of the ballet. However, it reads as a parody of traditional fairy tales. Here is a tale in the extreme. It is too comic to be taken in the way most fairy tales are meant to be taken-- believable within themselves. In preparation for this unit, The Big Room looked at motifs and themes that are common to all fairy tales. “The Story of the Hard Nut” was read by small groups of children and read aloud to by others. The youngest children were told the tale in storyteller fashion, with stick puppets used to help carry the narrative along.

Most of the ballets dispense with this tale altogether. Contrarily, Sendak went to the heart of the story as he designed his sets. Stowell features a vignette of the tale, while brief, in the ballet’s very beginning. Ask any current Lake and Park student why the Nutcracker comes to life as a prince, and hopefully he or she will tell you that he was being restored to his original state, Ask why Sendak features a Drosselmeyer, the famed godfather with the eye patch who orchestrates the gift giving as a puppeteer without strings hovering over an unusually truncated threesome on a backdrop scrim: Nutcracker, Mouse King, and princess with garish features, and again that child will probably tell you that her misshapen looks are due to the fact that she was cursed and bitten by a Mouse King in retribution for what her father did to said mouse’s many relatives. You will then be “in the know”, something that ballet-goers to Balanchine’s New York City production are usually left in the dark about.


In typical fashion, when we study a topic we incorporate as much as we can into its curriculum, bringing in history, the arts and science. Children saw various productions, one choreographed by Balanchine and one by Mark Morris. They learned, in small group format, of the five elemental positions of ballet. These mini classes were taught by Kristina Johnson, who relied on her childhood training to bring to life ballet lessons in preparation for our trip to McCaw Hall.


We looked at the soldier motif as well as at other wooden toys. Children built castles with blocks and used nutcrackers and toy hussars and little soldiers to augment their work. As we had been playing with tops when introducing dreidels in keeping with our Hanukkah unit., we made the connection between tops spinning and dancers spinning. We went on to talk about the earth spinning on its axis as it travels the sun, moving us into the season of winter. We learned to sing a beautiful song, first brought to our attention last year by Kathi Titus:

The earth is round,

Its orbit’s elliptical.

When day seems lost,

It’s eventually found.

Spaceship Earth.

Turning through the nights and days,

Spaceship Earth,

Summer, fall, winter, spring.

The Downstairs class is working on making Season Wheels which will soon incorporate not only the seasons, but the names of the months, as children return to school to to study the calendar as a topic in honor of a new month and a new year.


As a prop for dancing, Quyhn Cao taught children how to make snowflake wands. Beautifully fashioned from recycled paper, they are festooned with glitter and floral ribbon.


The Downstairs class had one idyllic morning a few days before attending the ballet. Gathering in the Trike Room, they were seated in a wide circle on the floor, each in front of his own painting paper with an individual pallet of the primary colors. (Black and white were offered for the children to experiment with pastel and shading.) As the Tchaikovsky suite played, children took turns wearing ballet costumes and dancing in front of classmates. Seated children painted their responses to the dancing. These paintings are currently on display in the hallway outside the Trike Room and are beautiful in their use of color and their interpretation of motion.


After a full hour of painting, we gathered to read The Little Dancer, a story about Edward Degas and one hopeful ballerina who became the model for his famous sculpture. As Morgan Padgett read, the children learned of Degas setting his easel r on stage in order to capture the movement of the ballerinas, doing what we had done that morning. (Other children had an opportunity to take part in this activity as we recreated it in afternoon sessions.)


All of the children across the grades were introduced to a musical tie-in. We listen to Duke Ellington’s Jazz version of The Nutcracker Suite. As the children were well versed in the familiar strains of the original, they were able to pick up the modified melodies within the updated suite.


In the Pacific Northwest Ballet’s production, the second act deviates greatly from Hoffman. Instead of going to “The Land of Sweets”, the Nutcracker, now in human form, and Marie/Claire, now a burgeoning adult, go off to an exotic land peopled by the figures that were seen in the wallpaper in the drawing room where the gifts were first presented.

Perhaps part of the 1983 production has run its course and is now passé. It was with some dismay that I witnessed, through post twentieth century eyes, the turbaned mice, the pasha, stereotypes of “all things exotic” in a conglomeration that mixed metaphor upon metaphor. At school, we referred back to Hoffman and the Land of Sweets as he presented it, and as Balanchine and others, including Tchaikovsky, designed it. A culmination of this whole unit was to then create either the Land of Sweets, or the wintry forest through which the Nutcracker and Clara/Marie traverse out of, what could be better? Sweets!


Turning ice cream cones on end to make trees, and using royal icing as mortar, snow and frosting, the children made their winter wonderlands. They designed on paper first and then embellished with marshmallows, gumdrops and coconut flakes. Others imagined the candy castle, not a gingerbread cottage, but a grand structure, as inspiration for their designs.

Following Up on the Unit:


Parents were encouraged to take children to see other versions of the Nutcracker, as well as to return to this one as a family, where seats closer to the stage might be obtained and where children could explore the orchestra pits and various aspects of the theater. Learning about more stories made into ballets is a natural, particularly Hoffman’s Coppelia, which features another mechanical doll who comes to life. Tchaikovsky will be featured again by the PNB as they present his Sleeping Beauty in late January/early February. We may offer an option for children who are interested in attending another production to go as a school group. Taking a dance class and attending a symphony are also wonderful responses, as is watching Disney’s original Fantasia, in which the Nutcracker Suite is the inspiration for an animated sequence that has nothing to do with Hoffman and everything to do with the turning of the seasons.


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