The 12 Heroines of Christmas ~ Clara

  1. Clara (or, Princess Tutu’s Ahiru)

What a delight to close my 12 Heroines of Christmas list with the most Christmassy heroine of all: Clara (or very very very specifically, Maurice Sendak’s incarnation of Clara in the Pacific Northwest Ballet’s version of the ballet). And while it is a little silly to squeeze Princess Tutu in here as well, I promise that the association goes deeper than simply “ballet.”


I watched the Pacific Northwest Ballet’s film The Nutcracker: The Motion Picture almost every Christmas season on PBS. The PNB version was famously redesigned by Maurice Sendak in the 1980s, the famous author and illustrator of surprisingly dark children’s classics like Where the Wild Things Are or the surreal, unsettling Outside Over There. The latter was a childhood favorite of mine and, oh how it comes full circle, the inspiration for the film Labyrinth.

It had already been pretty sanitized when adapted for the original ballet in the nineteen century but The Nutcracker has really become an incredibly Disneyfied, saccharine holiday tradition. Sendak’s version was invigorated by a return to the original source material ~ E.T.A. Hoffman’s novella (translated and available to read here). Hoffman is generally forgotten today, which is quite a shame as his works are so nightmarishly rich with suggestion and symbolism that they were a mainstay in Freudian analysis. What results is Sendak’s blend of whimsy and darkness in a tale now clearly about Clara’s anxiety about growing up.

Hoffman’s story is discussed nicely in this NPR story so I don’t want to rehash the plot. But the key point is that Marie (not called “Clara”) really does leave her (ridiculing, obnoxious) family at the end of the story  – whereas in almost all ballet versions, Clara returns to the comfort of home after her adventures in the Land of Sweets. Marie heroically saves the Nutcracker and then marries him just a year later, leaving her childhood home behind. This is made explicit in the PNB transition, shown here in this clip.

After Clara helps to kill the horrifying 7-headed Mouse King, the Nutcracker valiantly steps into the cascading discarded robes to kill the last little mouse. Clara steps after him and the robes become a cavernous maze. Inside, she suddenly realizes that she has grown up into a beautiful woman…


and the Nutcracker is waiting outside for her, now a prince.  Notably, there is no “Sugar Plum Fairy” to redirect the romantic/erotic storytelling (also, there is no such character in the original story).


As for Drosselmeyer, he is an oddly jealous figure. The PNB restores the uncomfortable erotic undertones with the amazingly creepy, childlike, fascinating, vulnerable Hugh Bigney:

The same dancer plays the strange Orientalist figure in the Land of Sweets too, who flirts and competes with the Nutcracker Prince for Clara’s affections.

Hoffman’s novella involves multiple layers of story telling – a tale within a tale within more tales. Marie is told the story of the Nutcracker and seemingly has no power to intervene, no control in another person’s story that is already written and finished. Moreover, no one pays any attention to HER narrative, mocking her and refusing to believe her extraordinary stories until the very end of the entire novella.  A dream! Ridiculous, foolish nonsense!  And yet, with a whispered confession, Marie is able to break the curse. She changes the story and insert herself into it, waltzing away to a happy ending. It used to tell me that a girl does not become an adult woman until she gains power over her own stories.

What has always thrilled me about this ballet version is that Sendak deviates significantly from Hoffman’s ending. Here is the clip:

In this version, jealous Drosselmeyer changes her happy ending into a nightmare and Clara wakes up with a start. Marie is able to enter into the closed story of the Hard Nut and write her own happy ending. In this version, the ending is not written at all and we’re left only with Clara’s (literal) awakening. What will she do next? When I was a little kid, I would finish the movie and imagine the rest of the story.


Given my childhood attachment to ballet-girls-that-intervene-in-stories, it is no wonder how quickly I fell in love with the underrated anime Princess Tutu. I’ve written about this show too many times on this blog already but the themes are so close to me: the unwritten story as analogy for the unpolished talent, the tension between a closed destiny and forging your own narrative, the acceptance of the self.


In grand conclusion, my 12 Christmas Heroines have taught me that

12. “[Life is not fair] but that’s the way it is.” You can draw on fantasy as a source of strength to move forward.

11. “The moonlight carries the message of love.” Love provides strength, power, resilience.

10. “Magic is in me! Magic is making me well!” Mentally push out thistles and hysterics, hysterics, hysterics and instead cultivate roses.

9. 「王子様さ。決めたんだ。志高く生きるんだって. Elevate and strengthen your inner character.

8. “Hyunyaa~.” Make a world that is cute, bright, cheerful, and clean.

7. “It has a fascination of its own, that bend, Marilla.” Imagine the many different Me’s in Me, the different stories and happy endings.

6. “Lips blood red, hair like night, skin like snow…” Embrace your own beauty.

5. “We each need to find our own inspiration, Kiki. Sometimes it isn’t easy.” Work the daily grind with meaningful creativity and personal motivation.

4.”It’s not easy to live your own way. You can’t blame anyone but yourself.” Rise to the challenge.

3, 2. “I have something more valuable than ordinary happiness.” Embrace what is closest to my true self and decide what is worth saving.

1. Go on your own adventure, interrupt the script, write your own conclusion.

Looking forward to 2016.



5 thoughts on “The 12 Heroines of Christmas ~ Clara

  1. Sumire says:

    I have always loved the music from the Nutcracker but the tale itself seemed rather slight. Now I am off to read the original story since it seems more like I wanted the ballet to be (I have never seen Sendak’s version). I am a big fan of Princess Tutu as well and the challenge to write your own conclusion is one I hope informs my 2016.


  2. Macky says:

    In the post where you talked about your son I wrote a long reply but my browser crashed and I never got to send it today. In it I talked about how happy and thankful I was because you decided to be brave for your son. I have a cousin who we thought had autism but where never sure because my uncle and aunt lived in denial, so at 13 years old he missed YEARS of therapy, of education and preparation for the world out there.

    On Christmas Eve my aunt told us that they found out he had autism, we didn’t talk more about it but you could hear the relief in her voice, because I’m sure she was trying really hard to believe that my cousin was just spoiled or childlike. That made me so happy, maybe now my dear cousing will get the attention he deserves and we can help out more as a family.

    So this was about me, but I really want to thank you again for being brave for your son. I thinkg that’s the most magical girl-like thing you could ever do, because being brave is hard and you do it every day. I’m sure your son will be grateful for the awesome mom he has.

    Happy new year, I hope it’s full of good surprises and love 🙂


    • cheri says:

      Oh this message! Thank you for writing to me and sharing this story. I am so glad your cousin has a diagnosis because it opens up so many opportunities for treatment. And while treatment isn’t a simple cure-all, it does give you a concrete set of words, tools, and resources that can help with the OTHER mental and emotional labor.

      I feel for your aunt and uncle because to be honest, I don’t even think I have really faced this monster head on either. It is a little easier to be cheerful for the blog but some days are really grim. So, actually, a big goal for 2016 is to be brave(r). Maybe I can’t slay the dragon but at least set off on the journey, through the dark forest, and all that.

      Your family is in my thoughts. Happy new year to you too!


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