Thursday, December 27, 2012

Last Light - Inspiration from the Nutcracker

The final story in New Mexico Fairytales is Last Light. Literary inspiration for this story comes from the 1816 novel Nutcracker and the Mouse King by E.T.A. Hoffmann. I also drew on my own experience seeing and performing in productions of the Nutcracker ballet.

Nutcracker and the Mouse King tells the story of a young girl's first love. It happens that her love, for much of the book, is a wooden Nutcracker. A young man tried to save a Princess from a horrible enchantment, and was tripped up by some wicked mice. Because of what the mice did, the Princess was freed of the magic spell and the enchantment passed to the young man. The Princess, who really should have been grateful for what the young man did, refused to marry him once she saw he was a Nutcracker. Maybe she found him too wooden. Anyway, the Nutcracker looks for someone to break the spell on him. Enter the heroine. After a series of battles against wicked mice and journeys to the Nutcracker's wonderful kingdom, the girl says she loves the Nutcracker and would marry him no matter what. Instantly, he's human again. They get engaged, and later marry.

If you've ever seen the Nutcracker ballet, you'll know it's very different from the book I just described. Really, the ballet is a summation / interpretation of a few chapters in the book. And, different ballet companies interpret the story in different ways. Some productions show the heroine with an older brother and sister, which follows the original story. Many leave out the older sister. Most versions show the Nutcracker dancing with a character called the Sugar Plum fairy; in other versions, the famous pas de deux is danced by the Nutcracker and a older version of the heroine.

Note: If you want to see a ballet production that gets very close to telling the complete orignal story, look up Hard Nut, by Mark Morris.

For Last Light, I used an outline that loosely follows performance order of the traditional ballet. The scene opens on a Christmas party. But, unlike in the ballet, this party is not well attended. The guests are sick and staying home. The Godfather figure does bring a present to the heroine, but it's not a Nutcracker. It's a cat, Vicente. He's the Nutcracker-esqe character of Last Light, a Prince who should appear more human and is under a spell.

Godfather tells the children a very interesting and sad fairytale. This is a hearkening to the book, not the ballet. In the book, the heroine learns the history of the Nutcracker and the Princess he saved. I pulled that into my story early, but added my own twist. The Nutcracker character doesn't save the Princess character at all. He...well, I don't want to spoil it for you. Just know that it sets up the whole curse.

Move forward to the battle scene with the rats (mice, in the original story). I went further than the ballet, and put rats in every room. I also brought Godfather actively into the fight, and gave the heroine a lot more to do. No hiding in a chair and throwing shoes for this gal.

We move from there into the desert, where it's beginning to snow. The ballet has a Snow scene and Angels at this point. I wrote a second snow scene, and let the snowflakes speak.

Next, the action moves into the Prince / Nutcracker's kingdom, where we meet the Sugar Plum Fairy.

As a dancer, I admire the Sugar Plum Fairy. One of my dearest friends is a Sugar Plum Fairy. But, as a writer, this ballet role drives me nuts. This is supposed to be the Nutcracker's kingdom, so who is this chick? Does she rule in his absence? Are they related? How does she have authority to knight him? Every year I've been backstage watching the Act II dances of the ballet, I've wondered about the Sugar Plum Fairy.

Now, I have Last Light. The Prince and heroine arrive in his kingdom and meet Lady Dulcinea, Regent of the desert kingdom and the Prince's aunt. She's been ruling in the Prince's absence. Character questions answered, and I feel better. Lady Dulcinea doesn't feel very good, but look what she has for a nephew; who can blame her.

In the ballet, the Prince tells the Sugar Plum Fairy about the battle against the mice. She's pleased. Then, the rest of the kingdom shows up to dance for the heroine and Prince. Last Light follows approximate order of the ballet divertissements, but the mood is very different from the ballet. Creatures are keeping secrets. The heroine feels the tension, but doesn't understand the cause...yet.

Quick summary of the various Act II divertissements and what I did in the story (ballet in parentheses):

(Spanish / Hot Chocolate dance): Insects of the desert kingdom. They show the heroine something of the history of Spaniards in New Mexico.

(Chinese / Tea): Legend of Loretto Chapel in Santa Fe. The path of logic in my mind went something like this: Chinese...three girls danced this in one production I saw...three little maids, Gilbert & Sullivan, Three Little Maids From School, girls school...New Mexico...the girls school that used to include Loretto Chapel in Santa Fe...legendary staircase.

(Arabian / Coffee): Camels of the US Army Camel Corp. A slice of peculiar history from the American southwest.

(Russian / Candy Cane): No direct scene. I needed room and time for the plot of Last Light.

(Shepherdess / Marzipan): The desert shepherds. These two characters first appeared in Goat Herd, another short story in the book New Mexico Fairytales.

(Mother Ginger): The Great Clay. In the ballet, Mother Ginger lifts her skirts, and children come tumbling out. In Last Light a giant clay pot spins around and breaks; little clay pots form from the shards. Nineteen of the little pots stand for the pueblo Indian nations of New Mexico. The last little pot stands for the Navajo, the nomadic nation.

(Dewdrop): The pinon jay Rocio.

(Flowers): The six white roses in the field of thorns.

In the space between the ballet's Dewdrop and Flowers divertissements I placed another scene, a fight between the rats and the heroine. The second thing about the Nutcracker ballet that annoyed me was the lack of drama and tension in Act II. For pity's sake, let's have another fight scene! Or a fight scene and a quest, with life hanging in the balance. And, unlike in the ballet, the mice make multiple appearances in the original story. My demonic rats get two moments to shine in Last Light.

Should any producers care to add a fight scene to Act II of the ballet, please let me know. I'd love to see it.

The ballet ends one of two ways, depending on the production. Either the curtain goes down with everyone waving goodbye to the Prince and heroine, or the heroine wakes up in her little bed with the Nutcracker nearby. Last Light flashes forward three years. The reader sees how Leocadia's changed, and learns the next chapter of her love story.

Many of the characters in Last Light have names in harmony with the names of their Nutcracker counterparts. Dulcinea means sweet or sweetheart (Sugar Plum Fairy). Rocio means covered in dew (Dewdrop). Leocadia, the Last Light heroine, has a name meaning clear and bright. This is consistent with the name meaning of Clara, the heroine in the Nutcracker ballet. The heroine in the original Nutcracker story was named Marie, which means bitter or sea of bitterness. Other names in Last Light were picked with care; I leave it to you to find their meanings, if you wish.

Whether or not you like the Nutcracker, I hope you enjoy reading Last Light. There's a lot of desert enchantment and New Mexico history dancing around the words. Embrace the night and join the dance.



Special thanks to Deanna McGill of Pampa Civic Ballet and Stephanie Marie Parker of LanDance Conservatory (and one of my favorite Sugar Plum Fairies of all time), for the Nutcracker history and tradition they've shared with me over the years.

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