Encores & Curtain Calls: A ‘Nutcracker’ from the Emerald Isle
“To regret the past, to hope in the future, and never to be satisfied with the present: that is what I spend my whole life doing.”
— Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
If you reckon in all the stage, screen, television and other such sundry variants, it sometimes seems as if there may be as many versions of the “Nutcracker” as there are editions of the Bible — a permutation for all tastes.
It’s the age-old tale of Clara, the little girl who, once upon Christmas eve, is gifted with a nutcracker in the form of a wooden doll — an offering by Clara’s mysterious and magical godfather, Drosselmeyer, a local councilman. But alas, the curious little man-figure is intentionally broken by her archetypical boys-will-be-boys brother, Fritz. Clara is undone by this and, for reasons we shall never quite comprehend, her passion for the doll seizes her young imagination to such an extent that long after the festivities have ended and all have retired to bed, she is compelled to arise just before midnight to re-visit the object of her obsession.
So much for compelling scenarios. Offhand, if I were a ballet impresario and a composer had laid this plotline for a potential production on me — perhaps even promising the most delightful of music — I would very probably have grimaced politely and suggested that he search on for a more gripping hook for an evening’s Christmas entertainment.
However, that would fail to take into account that the composer seeking to create the balletic version of this curious tale was none other than the redoubtable Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.
Why redoubtable? Because, like few others, Tchaikovsky knew how to spin a good, nay, a wonderful tune. But not a wonderful tune alone; a tune will fall well shy of its potential if it lacks an equally wonderful musical color-scheme, or harmony — rather like Cinderella going to the ball in her frumpy pajamas and curlers instead of her super-gown and coiffed bun. In short, to paraphrase Irving Mills’ lyrics for Duke Ellington’s classic tune, “It won’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.”
Tchaikovsky had buckshot in all three barrels of his triple-barreled musical shotgun: melodic genius, harmonic depth and rhythmic power. And so, in spite of the meager dramatic elements, he pulled, out of his infinitely fertile compositional hat, a veritable feast of first-rate tunes, themes, motifs and melodies, replete with scrumptious harmonies and infectious rhythms, the likes of which have ravished Christmas-concert audiences for over a century and look to have every chance of doing the same for centuries to come.
Only in recent years, after a lifetime of loving its heart-melting, lyrical music, did I manage to get around to purchasing the orchestral score to study and unravel the secrets of its many beauties. I had always thought to myself, “Well, his score is so simple, so pure, innocent and transparent, so unpretentiously light-hearted and lovely, that it must have been a product of his musical youth, perhaps composed when he was just starting out and when the press and the pressure of colleagues, critics and fame had yet to distort his Muses and push him into making music of depth and complexity, designed to impress and create awe.
How wrong I was! For, only equally recently, did I learn that Tchaikovsky actually wrote “The Nutcracker” in 1890, a scant two years before the composer left this earth at the relatively young age of 53.
In other words, here was a composer who, in the final glow of his musical maturity, was not afraid to sing from his child’s heart, to inhabit the simplest, most song-filled space in his soul, and to conjure a bouquet of Christmas tunes, dances and delights so irresistible that, ever since, the world has been incapable of keeping its hands and its ears off of his “Sugar Plum Fairies,” “Arabian Dance,” “Waltz of the Snowflakes” and on and on.
We should all come to such a luminous simplicity in our old age, where every tone tells and every color glows.
In addition to the classic versions of “The Nutcraker” by the likes of Balanchine and Nureyev, and latter-day, Tchaikovsky-would-turn-over-in-his-grave versions, such as Barbie in the Nutrcracker and “The Nutcracker on Ice,” we, right here in Pioneer Valley, will have the rare opportunity of witnessing yet a new and unexplored spin on this classic when the Greenfield-based Celtic Heels Irish Dance Co., directed by Cara Leach, presents its production of “A Celtic Nutcracker,” Dec. 21, at 7 p.m., at the Academy of Music in Northampton.
Below, my talk with Leach:
JM: Where did the idea for the Celtic Nutcracker originate?
CL: It was kind of a collaboration between myself and a co-teacher; we had batted it around for a few years and last year we decided to put it into action.
JM: How long has the company been in existence?
CL: About seven years now. We have students from ages 3 to 73, a big cast and lots of different styles of Celtic dance.
JM: Where did you come by your knowledge of Celtic dance?
CL: My mom teaches Celtic dance in the Hudson Valley, N.Y., and when I was 3 years old, she opened a dance school and, over the years, although I did other styles of dance, Irish was always my favorite, and I began teaching my own classes when I was about 20. It just snowballed from there.
JM: I’m guessing that all the dance imports that became the rage in the U.S. in the past two decades have made this style of dancing much more popular than it used to be?
CL: It is; when I was a young child doing this form of dance, it was very rare for anyone to be doing Irish dance. But then, with the infection of “Riverdance” many years back — with Michael Flatley, he was a terrific dancer years ago — it brought the culture to the forefront of people’s minds.
JM: When I saw them years ago and tried to analyze just what it was that made the company so compelling, it struck me that, as I’m sure you’re well aware, the Celtic style doesn’t employ the upper body movement to any great extent.
JM: They hold themselves fairly tight from the hips up and you have the focus on the legwork; you have this hard-hitting and ensemble “percussing” where the heels of the entire group are striking the floor together — a layered effect.
CL: Right, I would say that’s pretty specific to Irish dancing.
Tickets: adults, $18; seniors and students, $15; Children under 12, $12
Tickets are available at the Academy of Music Box Office, open Tuesday through Friday, 3 to 6 p.m. 413-584-9032, ext. 105. Service fees will apply with purchase. Online, http://academyofmusictheatre.tix.com
An author and composer, columnist Joseph Marcello of Northfield focuses on music and theater. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.