{Guest Post} "Dissecting The Nutcracker: From Fairy Tale to Ballet to WINTERSPELL" by Author Claire Legrand

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Look for Claire Legrand's
Nutcracker-inspired novel
coming September 30, 2014,
as well as the prequel novella,
on August 26, 2014!

Claire is the author of THE CAVENDISH HOME FOR BOYS AND GIRLS, a New York Public Library Best Book for Children in 2012, and THE YEAR OF SHADOWS, both from Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. 

WINTERSPELL pre-order: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound | Books-A-Million | iTunes | The Book Depository 
SUMMERFALL pre-order: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Books-A-Million | iTunes 

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Dissecting The Nutcracker: From Fairy Tale to Ballet to WINTERSPELL

by Claire Legrand

Growing up, it was a Christmastime tradition in my house to watch PBS’s broadcast of The Nutcracker—specifically, the 1986 motion picture version performed by the Pacific Northwest Ballet (PNB), directed by Kent Stowell.

YouTube Link

The above clip is from the beginning of Act II, specifically the Spanish (Chocolate), Arabian (Coffee), Chinese (Tea), and Russian (Trepak) dances. The costumes may look slightly different than what you’re used to, but they actually are more accurate to the descriptions in the original fairy tale than are most Nutcracker costumes.

Since this was the Nutcracker I watched during my formative childhood years, it burrowed into my subconscious and now colors my viewing of any Nutcracker production. To some, this production might seem like a strange one; it is dark and sensual, unnerving and surreal. Not what most people envision when they hear “Nutcracker”—saccharine costumes and kids from the local ballet school in perfect spiral curls. In ways no other production I’ve seen has been able to achieve, this 1986 Nutcracker captures the spirit of the original fairy tale by E. T. A. Hoffman.

Elements from this production, combined with elements from the original fairy tale, formed the inspirational foundation for my upcoming Nutcracker re-telling, WINTERSPELL.

I would guess most people are not familiar with the original fairy tale, or they assume it is identical to the ballet. Even having watched The Nutcracker since I was young, I didn’t know it was based on a fairy tale until I was older, and I didn’t actually read the fairy tale until I was much older than that. (Interestingly, the original Nutcracker libretto was not based on the original fairy tale by Hoffmann, but on a sweetened, lighter version of the story adapted by Alexandre Dumas.)

Fairy tales, by their very nature, are odd constructs. There are often holes in their logic, narrative problems explained away by a nearby fairy godmother or convenient magic spell. They are largely allegorical—stories constructed to illustrate a particular morality, a cultural ideal, an intellectual concept. They can therefore lack emotional resonance, the characters kept at a distance from the reader due to the constraints of the allegory.

With this in mind, Hoffman’s The Nutcracker and the Mouse King is puzzling. It seems to have little allegorical depth, and is instead a deceptively simple flight of fancy. I say “deceptively” because while the frame story of Marie and her nutcracker doll fighting off a Mouse King is fairly straightforward, the convoluted tale-within-a-tale of how the Nutcracker came to be describes a much more complex back story—one we seldom see on stage in modern productions of the ballet.

In The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, the young girl Marie is given a Nutcracker by her strange Godfather Drosselmeyer. She immediately falls in love with it, and when a midnight battle breaks out between mice and her Christmas toys, now come to life, she helps the Nutcracker fight off their enemies.

We all know what happens next in the ballet: Marie—or Clara, as she is typically called in the ballet— is whisked away to the Nutcracker’s kingdom, where she is entertained by an array of dancers as a reward for defeating the mice. At the end of the evening, she returns home and wakes up to realize it was only a dream—or was it?

In the original fairy tale, things happen a bit differently.

After the battle between the Nutcracker and the Mouse King, Marie (remember, Marie in the fairy tale; Clara in the ballet) wakes up with an injury sustained in the battle. Her parents write it off as her having fallen during the night, but Drosselmeyer knows Marie is telling the truth. He tells her the story of how the Nutcracker came to be, and here is where the tale-within-a-tale begins:

Once there was a beautiful princess named Pirlipat. The Mouse Queen tricked Pirlipat’s mother into angering the King. The King, furious, had Drosselmeyer, his court inventor, build traps to catch the mice, killing the Mouse Queen’s children. The Mouse Queen then cursed Pirlipat to look ugly—an oversized head, a huge mouth, and a beard (like a nutcracker). The King sent Drosselmeyer off to search for a way to undo the curse.

Long story short: The solution involves using Drosselmeyer’s nephew—the only young man who meets typically arbitrary fairy tale criteria, like having never been shaved or worn boots since birth—to break the curse. Only it goes wrong at the last minute, undoing the curse for Pirlipat and transferring the curse to Drosselmeyer’s nephew, transforming him into a nutcracker. Pirlipat was repulsed by the nephew’s ugly appearance and banished him from the royal castle.

In the 1986 production, the tale-within-a-tale about Princess Pirlipat is alluded to in the above scene—not in the original ballet—with musical score by Mozart, whom both Nutcracker composer Tchaikovsky and author Hoffmann loved. This scene also gives us interesting insight into the Clara/Drosselmeyer dynamic.

In Hoffmann’s original story, this tale-within-a-tale concludes, and we return to Marie. She helps the Nutcracker defeat the Mouse King (for real this time). Then, as a reward, the Nutcracker takes Marie to his kingdom, the Land of Dolls, where she sees a bunch of, again, completely arbitrary things—Gingerbread City and Candytown, monkeys in red jackets playing Turkish music, beautiful children eating fish fresh out of the water, and a parade by the Fisherman’s Guild.

When Marie wakes up, back in her bedroom, after a night of riding gondolas and pounding rock candy, she swears to the Nutcracker that if she were Princess Pirlipat, she would think him handsome and never banish him. Marie’s pledge of devotion breaks the Nutcracker’s curse; he asks her to marry him, and she accepts.

Hoffmann’s fairy tale is visually lush, fantastical—and unsettling, descriptions of the grotesque Mouse King and the peculiar relationship between Marie and Drosselmeyer being standout examples. Despite the randomness of certain details, The Nutcracker and the Mouse King succeeds as a narrative by focusing on two key relationships: Marie and Drosselmeyer, and Marie and the Nutcracker Prince.

So often, in ballet productions I have seen, Clara (Marie) is played by a child, and little dancing is required of her. The relationship between her and the Nutcracker Prince is chaste, even platonic, and Drosselmeyer is simply a good-natured magician in a cape, swirling about and making things happen for . . . some reason. All three characters are completely overshadowed by the parade of splashy dances in the second act, none of which have any narrative import. When Clara wakes up at the end of the ballet, we are left feeling vaguely, superficially entertained, without having made much emotional connection to the proceedings beyond, “Oh, that tutu is pretty.”

In the 1986 PNB production, however, the Clara/Drosselmeyer and Clara/Nutcracker Prince relationships are the heart of the story. Clara’s affections for each of them—and what each of these men represent to her twelve-year-old self, teetering on the edge of adolescence—define the story.

When I wrote WINTERSPELL, I was hugely inspired by this production, and how it enhanced elements already present (but, in true fairy tale style, only vaguely hinted at) in the original story. So many productions of The Nutcracker leave me emotionally cold. Why should I care what’s happening onstage when so much of the action is completely arbitrary and the characters never have to struggle or change? But this 1986 production brilliantly focuses on that sensual core of Hoffmann’s original tale—how Drosselmeyer grows jealous of young Marie’s fondness of the Nutcracker; how Marie, once realizing that her nutcracker doll is actually a cursed man in disguise, grows embarrassed when she remembers that she has been holding and kissing him this whole time.

In WINTERSPELL, I expanded upon these sentiments of jealousy and eroticism, and increased Clara’s age from child to young woman, all in an attempt to focus my reimagining into what I believe the story is really about, at its core: Clara’s transformation from girl to woman, and her discovery and acceptance of herself as a sexual being with desires.

Of course, I have so far omitted mention of one important character from the Nutcracker ballet—the Sugar Plum Fairy.

I can only assume this character was created to give the prima ballerina something to do, since the star of the show is so often a child. The Sugar Plum Fairy does not appear in the original fairy tale—and therefore, she does not appear in the 1986 production, which hews so closely to Hoffmann’s vision. Imagine my surprise when I first saw a different ballet production and wondered who this sparkly chick in the second act was. What did she have to do with anything?

In the 1986 production, there is no Sugar Plum Fairy. Her dances are performed by Clara, including the famous Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. (Watch for the fun Clara/Drossemleyer/Nutcracker Prince dynamics in this clip.)

For me, the Sugar Plum fairy is the most problematic element of the ballet. Who is she? Where did she come from? Why is she ruling the Nutcracker Prince’s kingdom? Is it with his permission? Was there a hostile takeover? Are they related? Did she have something to do with the curse upon him? Does she know Drosselmeyer? Is she jealous of Clara? The questions are endless. The Sugar Plum Fairy comes out of nowhere, her presence is never explained, and she ends up dancing the loveliest, most grandiose dance in the ballet with either a nameless Cavalier (who?), or even worse, with the Nutcracker Prince (but he’s supposed to love Clara!). What is supposed to be an emotional finale ends up falling flat.

Having been frustrated with the existence of the Sugar Plum Fairy in most Nutcracker productions, I was delighted to come upon the following quote in Jack Anderson’s The Nutcracker Ballet, while researching in preparation for writing WINTERSPELL. Anderson writes, about Alexander Gorsky (who masterminded a famous Russian revision of the complete Nutcracker in 1919):

Gorsky’s production also implied that the Sugarplum Fairy was Clara’s idealized vision of the beautiful adult woman she would like to grow up to be. Gorsky here initiated a tendency, which continues to this day, for producers of The Nutcracker to relate Clara and the Sugarplum Fairy in some psychologically significant fashion. (Anderson, 1979, p. 86)

Bingo. Here was a way for me to resolve my long-standing issues with the Sugar Plum Fairy character: I could relate her, as with everything, back to Clara. I could incorporate her character into WINTERSPELL and give her a reason for being; I could answer my questions about her motivations and her relationship with the Nutcracker Prince. Clara could actually have a relationship with the Sugar Plum Fairy—and it could define her journey in radical ways. In WINTERSPELL, my Sugar Plum Fairy’s name is Anise, and she is indeed a faery—but there is nothing sugary about her.

Nothing except for how sweetly she’ll smile at you right before she kills you.

(I wonder what Hoffmann, Dumas, and Nutcracker maestro Tchaikovsky would think about that?)

WINTERSPELL releases September 30. If you decide to read it (and I hope you do!), I encourage you to check out that 1986 PNB production both before and after you read. (You can rent/buy on iTunes/Amazon, and clips are available on YouTube.) I also encourage you to do the same with Hoffmann’s original tale. (I recommend this edition, retold and illustrated by Maurice Sendak. He designed the costumes and sets—and helped reimagine the story—for the 1986 production.)

Compare and contrast the original Hoffmann fairy tale with the Dumas version, the 1986 ballet production with other ballets.

If you do this, I think you’ll be able to trace those core elements I’m talking about—Clara and Drosselmeyer, Clara and the Nutcracker Prince; jealousy and possessiveness, sexuality and danger—from fairy tale to ballet to WINTERSPELL. At the heart of every fairy tale is a powerful idea; it’s the job of those who attempt retellings to focus on it, to enhance it, to make it accessible to modern audiences. I hope you’ll enjoy how I’ve done that with WINTERSPELL.

(And, seriously—watch out for Anise. I know she’s got a killer wardrobe, but don’t let that glitter deceive you.)*

*I know I’m being kind of facetious about Anise, but she is incredibly important in WINTERSPELL. I’m trying to disguise how important by not talking about her in too much detail. Just FYI.

**Also, don’t forget that SUMMERFALL, a WINTERSPELL prequel novella, releases August 26!


Anderson, Jack. (1979). The Nutcracker Ballet. New York: Gallery Books.

O F F I C I A   I N F O:

Author: Claire Legrand
Release Date: Sept. 30, 2014
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers

The clock chimes midnight, a curse breaks, and a girl meets a prince . . . but what follows is not all sweetness and sugarplums. 

New York City, 1899. Clara Stole, the mayor's ever-proper daughter, leads a double life. Since her mother's murder, she has secretly trained in self-defense with the mysterious Drosselmeyer. 

Then, on Christmas Eve, disaster strikes. 

Her home is destroyed, her father abducted--by beings distinctly not human. To find him, Clara journeys to the war-ravaged land of Cane. Her only companion is the dethroned prince Nicholas, bound by a wicked curse. If they're to survive, Clara has no choice but to trust him, but his haunted eyes burn with secrets--and a need she can't define. With the dangerous, seductive faery queen Anise hunting them, Clara soon realizes she won't leave Cane unscathed--if she leaves at all. 

Inspired by The Nutcracker, WINTERSPELL is a dark, timeless fairy tale about love and war, longing and loneliness, and a girl who must learn to live without fear.

Author: Claire Legrand
Release Date: Aug. 26, 2014
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers

Rinka is a faery, passionate and powerful, determined to maintain the tenuous peace between faeries and humans. 

Alban Somerhart is a human, a reluctant king trapped in an arranged marriage, desperate to prevent war. 

Their love could save the kingdom of Cane . . . or shatter it forever. 

In this captivating novella, prequel to the upcoming Winterspell, Claire Legrand weaves a story of magic, political intrigue, and forbidden love that sets the stage for the rise of a wicked queen and the journey of a human girl named Clara . . .


  1. Very, very cool. Thanks, Claire, for letting us in on your thought process for going from "The Nutcracker" to WINTERSPELL. I look forward to its release!


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