When Maurice Sendak Created a Dark Nutcracker Ballet

Chil­dren are the per­fect audi­ence for The Nut­crack­er. 

(Well, chil­dren and the grand­moth­ers who can’t wait for the tod­dler to start sit­ting still long enough to make the hol­i­day-themed bal­let an annu­al tra­di­tion…)

Mau­rice Sendak, the cel­e­brat­ed children’s book author and illus­tra­tor, agreed, but found the stan­dard George Bal­an­chine-chore­o­graphed ver­sion so trea­cly as to be unwor­thy of chil­dren, dub­bing it the “most bland and banal of bal­lets.”

The 1983 pro­duc­tion he col­lab­o­rat­ed on with Pacif­ic North­west Bal­let artis­tic direc­tors Kent Stow­ell and Fran­cia Rus­sell did away with the notion that chil­dren should be “cod­dled and sweet­ened and sug­arplummed and kept away from the dark aspects of life when there is no way of doing that.”

Tchaikovsky’s famous score remained in place, but Sendak and Stow­ell ducked the source mate­r­i­al for, well, more source mate­r­i­al. As per the New York City Ballet’s web­site, the Russ­ian Impe­r­i­al Ballet’s chief bal­let mas­ter, Mar­ius Peti­pa, com­mis­sioned Tchaikovsky to write music for an adap­ta­tion of Alexan­der Dumas’ child-friend­ly sto­ry The Nut­crack­er of Nurem­berg. But The Nut­crack­er of Nurem­berg was inspired by the much dark­er E.T.A. Hoff­man tale, 1816’s “The Nut­crack­er and the Mouse King.”

The “weird, dark qual­i­ties” of the orig­i­nal were much more in keep­ing with Sendak’s self pro­claimed “obses­sive theme”: “Chil­dren sur­viv­ing child­hood.”

Sendak want­ed the bal­let to focus more intent­ly on Clara, the young girl who receives the Nut­crack­er as a Christ­mas present in Act I:

It’s about her vic­to­ry over her fear and her grow­ing feel­ings for the prince… She is over­whelmed with grow­ing up and has no knowl­edge of what this means. I think the bal­let is all about a strong emo­tion­al sense of some­thing hap­pen­ing to her, which is bewil­der­ing.


Bal­an­chine must have felt dif­fer­ent­ly. He benched Clara in Act II, let­ting the adult Sug­arplum Fairy take cen­ter­stage, to guide the chil­dren through a pas­sive tour of the Land of Sweets.

As Sendak scoffed to the Dal­las Morn­ing News:

It’s all very, very pret­ty and very, very beau­ti­ful… I always hat­ed the Sug­arplum Fairy. I always want­ed to whack her.

“Like what kids real­ly want is a can­dy king­dom. That short­changes children’s feel­ings about life,” echoes Stow­ell, who revived the Sendak com­mis­sion, fea­tur­ing the illus­tra­tor’s sets and cos­tumes every win­ter for 3 decades.

In lieu of the Sug­ar Plum Fairy, Sendak and Stow­ell intro­duced a daz­zling caged pea­cock — a fan favorite played by the same dancer who plays Clara’s moth­er in Act I.

The threats, in the form of eccen­tric uncle Drosselmeier, a fero­cious tiger, and a mas­sive rat pup­pet with an impres­sive, puls­ing tail, have a Freudi­an edge.

The paint­ed back­drops, grow­ing Christ­mas tree, and Nut­crack­er toy look as if they emerged from one of Sendak’s books. (He fol­lowed up the bal­let by illus­trat­ing a new trans­la­tion of the Hoff­man orig­i­nal.)

The Sendak-designed cos­tumes are more under­stat­ed, thought Pacif­ic North­west Bal­let cos­tumer Mark Zap­pone, who described work­ing with Sendak as “an incred­i­ble joy and plea­sure” and recalled the fun­ny ongo­ing bat­tle with the Act II Moors cos­tumes to Seat­tle Met:

Maurice’s design had the women in quite bil­lowy pants. So we ripped them out of the box, threw them on the girls upstairs in the stu­dios, and Kent start­ed rehears­ing the Moors. And one by one, the girls got their legs stuck in those pants and—boom—hit the floor, all six of them. It was like, “Oh my God, what are we going to do about that one?” They end­ed up, for years, twist­ing the legs in their cos­tumes and mak­ing a lit­tle tuck here and there. It was a rite of pas­sage; if you were going to do the Moors, don’t for­get to twist your pants around so you won’t get stuck in them.

Rent a filmed ver­sion of Mau­rice Sendak’s The Nut­crack­er on Ama­zon Prime. (Look for a Wild Thing cameo in the boat­ing scene with Clara and her Prince.)

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

The Only Draw­ing from Mau­rice Sendak’s Short-Lived Attempt to Illus­trate The Hob­bit

Mau­rice Sendak Sent Beau­ti­ful­ly Illus­trat­ed Let­ters to Fans — So Beau­ti­ful a Kid Ate One

Mau­rice Sendak Illus­trates Tol­stoy in 1963 (with a Lit­tle Help from His Edi­tor)

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­maol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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