Sunday, December 30, 2012

Building family holiday traditions: Nutcracker

Between the Lines: Build your own family tradition

Sunday, 30 December, 2012, 12:00am

I love the Christmas season and find comfort and joy in welcoming the same things every year, such as a fragrant fir tree in our living room and a turkey lunch at home with my family on Christmas Day.
Two years ago, we had a family lunch at The Peninsula and saw its beautiful display of Santa's village, complete with a chugging train and a large gingerbread house. It was such a happy day that we made a repeat visit last year. Being a fool for tradition, I envisaged an annual family pilgrimage with the obligatory photo in front of the gingerbread house to see how our children were growing through the successive years. So imagine my dismay recently when I saw that the open area that housed the display had been converted into a cafe.
Not to be disappointed again, I've decided that from now on we will resort to the fail-safe tradition of seeing The Nutcracker ballet. This year is the inaugural mummy-daughter outing to see this show, and we shared this experience with my childhood friend and her daughters. This is meaningful because my friend and I went to The Nutcracker together when we were growing up in Canada.
My daughter's first book on this subject is Alison Jay's The Nutcracker, which is based on the Balanchine ballet. It is the only version I have in which the lead character is named Clara. All the other versions are based on the original 1816 story by E.T.A. Hoffman about a young girl named Marie and the seven-headed Mouse King that she meets. Jay's distinctive crackle-varnish technique gives her illustrations an antique look.
I have two versions that are English translations of Hoffman's longish short story, The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, which was originally written in German. The first one is illustrated by Roberto Innocenti, a self-taught artist in Italy who has also masterfully illustrated The Adventures of PinocchioA Christmas Carol and other classics.
No collection of Maurice Sendak's storybooks would be complete without his version, created as a result of his collaboration with then artistic director Kent Stowell to design the sets and costumes for the Pacific Northwest Ballet's production of Nutcracker in 1983. Even today, this company's annual Christmas production is known as Stowell & Sendak's Nutcracker.
The dark overtones of Hoffman's original story are beautifully rendered through Sendak's art. From the weird seven-headed king of the mice to the 11 consecutive pages of full-page illustrations of Candytown from different perspectives, I am again captivated by Sendak's genius. Seeing the Pacific Northwest Ballet of Nutcracker has been added to my bucket list.
I also have two versions that are more appropriate for reading aloud in one sitting. Lisbeth Zwerger has been accorded the Hans Christian Andersen Medal for lifetime achievement, and her interpretation of the Hoffman tale borders on surreal. The ominous watch face replaces the grandfather clock, and is an image that is reproduced in other parts of the storybook. She also chooses to illustrate aspects of the Hoffman story that may be unfamiliar in the ballet story, and uses unconventional perspectives of such scenes.
The version that I have been reading with my daughters is written and illustrated by Susan Jeffers. In her "author's note", Jeffers says the reasons she wants to attempt her own version are to produce a book that follows the ballet story, and to create a read-aloud version for picture-book-age children. Her version is one of the rare ones which portrays ballerinas in mid-dance, and makes the perfect accompaniment to our mummy-daughter outing.
Best wishes for your family's tradition-building this holiday season.
Annie Ho is board chairperson of Bring Me A Book Hong a non-profit organisation devoted to improving children's literacy

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