As a young child, when someone mentioned The Nutcracker I immediately thought of the ballet and Tchaikovsky’s music. My first experience with The Nutcracker was when I saw New York City Ballet’s performance at the age of three. And for years I performed in the New Jersey production directed by Irine Fokine (niece of choreographer Michel Fokine). But not once as a child do I recall reading the story, written by ETA Hoffmann in 1816. So, it was quite exciting when a few weeks ago I received a copy of NUTCRACKER, Hoffmann’s original story translated by Ralph Manheim with illustrations by Maurice Sendak. Although Sendak’s illustrations for the book were published in 1984, NUTCRACKER was reissued a few months following Sendak’s death earlier this year and on the 50th anniversary of Where the Wild Things Are.
At the invitation of artistic director Kent Stowell, Sendak designed sets and costumes for Pacific Northwest Ballet’s 1983 Nutcracker production. The book’s introduction, written by Sendak in 1984, beautifully explains his initial reservations and eventual excitement about working with the company. Flipping through the pages, you’ll notice that the book includes his illustrations for Hoffmann’s story as well as some of his drawings for Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Nutcracker costumes and sets. The pictures are marvelous, bright, and haunting – as are many of Sendak’s illustrations for his own stories.
At 99 pages, this is not the story that is told in most ballet productions of the Nutcracker. Hoffmann’s story is filled with characters and sequences that rarely or never appear on stage. After so many years of only knowing the ballet version of the Nutcracker, the story is surprising and imaginative. It even includes a tale within a tale. The adventurous plot allowed Sendak to fill the book with hundreds of illustrations. Only a few of them are familiar, while the remainder pay tribute to Hoffmann’s elaborate story – one that is immensely more complex than the Nutcracker that so many ballet audiences know and adore.
This book is a wonderful reminder of the Nutcracker’s roots. Having inspired so many choreographers and artists for nearly 200 years, it’s a treat to read the original story accompanied by Sendak’s lively illustrations.