- 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.