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'The Nutcracker'--the Making Of A Mouse Movie

October 05, 1986|STEPHEN SCHAEFER | Schaefer is a New York-based free-lance writer and former film critic for US magazine. and

SEATTLE — The dancers of the Pacific Northwest Ballet who have never seen a film company at work on their stage are somewhat in awe of the commotion caused by transferring their successful production of "The Nutcracker" to the screen. Mostly in their 20s, they wander around in their 18th-Century dress or mouse costumes fascinated by the mechanics of repeating and repeating steps and sequences for director Carroll Ballard.

Unlike the jaded types you might see in New York who can't wait for a coffee break and a cigarette, these dancers will show up even on days when they're not dancing to see how choreographer Kent Stowell is adapting steps for the camera or watch Maurice Sendak, who conceived, designed and costumed this production, make similar alterations for the camera.

With the help of a fake chin, nose and bald pate, Hugh Bigney, 30, created the starring role of Herr Drosselmeyer, the doll maker who sets the story of "The Nutcracker" in motion. His daughter, Shaundra, 8, is a baby mouse in the movie. "I find it difficult," says Bigney, "to go to lunch and come back and be the same way. Carroll is interesting to watch. As the day goes on, I grow tired and get unresponsive. And he's just the opposite!"

"I've lost my chandelier!" exclaims the 58-year-old Sendak with resignation.

What the celebrated children's illustrator and designer for New York City Opera has actually "lost" is the hanging centerpiece in his set design for a new, unorthodox film version of Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker" ballet.

Ballard is huddled behind a camera in the empty orchestra pit of the University of Washington's Meany Auditorium rethinking many elements of the Christmas classic for the camera. He wants the chandelier removed from the camera's shot because "the void works for us," he tells Sendak.

Before proceeding, he asks Sendak to view the camera shot for himself and see why it's "too cluttered" to remain intact. As the chandelier is hoisted, Ballard says, "Up, up and away, bye, bye," and goes back behind his camera.

"He counts on my being reasonable," mutters Sendak appreciatively of their creative partnership, which is gradually altering PNB's 3-year-old production into what promises to be more than simply a recording of a stage production. (The film, distributed by Atlantic Releasing, will open in November with a newly recorded score by the London Symphony.)

This interpretation put the company on the nation's dance map when it premiered in December, 1983. With its fresh dramatic slant and visual richness, the hit version of the ballet won accolades from national dance critics.

But "Nutcracker's" road to the screen really began in 1981 when artistic director Stowell's wife, Francia Russell, the PNB's associate artistic director, saw the Sendak-designed "The Magic Flute' in Houston. She suggested he do it.

"Being asked to design a 'Nutcracker,' " says Sendak, who had never previously designed a ballet, "is like being asked to do the 'Ring.' You know it's going to take two years of your life and you have to love the thing. I didn't love it! So I said no."

When they met again, Sendak says, both realized "how bored and displeased we were with the traditional version. What Kent was asking me to do was to start from scratch, with only Tchaikovsky--who has always been the best part."

Sendak went back to the early 19th-Century short story by E.T.A. Hoffmann called "The Nutcracker and the Mouse King."

"We spent over a year revising the story," Sendak recalls, "putting as much into it as was German and weird and fascinating--what made it beautiful." If there is any reason why he thinks the Seattle version has been a success, "it's that it's so different.

"It's pre-Freud," he argues. "Hoffmann is in sympathy with the psychology or inner workings of a child's mind. That hadn't been done until then. Freud was very explicit that Hoffmann was one of the authors who drew him into psychology. Hoffmann is modern--in our sense of the word. He has a vision of the inside of a child of great sensitivity; her family loves her but is out of sympathy with her. It's a great insight.

"Why it appeals to me is because there's a favorite subject of mine: children going through an event in life in full view of the parent. The parents, as loving as they are, are oblivious that their child is having this adventure right in front of them!

"She has to go through this all by herself. The moral being: All kids do."

The PNB "Nutcracker" spawned a best-selling hardcover version of the Hoffmann story with Sendak illustrations two years ago. But if the movie looks typically Sendakian, with an 18th-Century living room decorated with nudes, a bust of Mozart (Hoffmann added the A to his complete name in honor of Amadeus), a pasha, a peacock and a tall clock topped by an owl who flaps his wings on the hour, it ultimately will depend on Ballard's eye.

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