Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The Nutcracker Event

A couple months ago I was asked about possibly putting together a Nutcracker event for our school.  I've put together and have been involved with events in the past, bringing high school dance companies into schools to perform and answer questions, giving kids exposure to ballet and also giving the studio a chance to advertise their show and do something for their community. I looked into the same type of event for our school, but the more I thought about it I realized this was the perfect opportunity to put my desires into action of blending the arts and education.  This desire is not about inspiring children to become future artists but to show them how closely intertwined they are in the world around us, breaking stereotypical assumptions and hopefully building a respect and appreciation.

As the children began arriving I had each of them discover their Russian name.  With the learning of so many people during this lesson, I wanted to give them a chance to identify with those names, to see the respect and honor one has for their family.  When a new person was introduced into this lesson I had them repeat their name and its meaning.

In Russia your middle name is a patronymic. This name tells people who your father is.  To create this name we used our father's first name, and depending on our gender, we added a different ending.

If you are a boy you add
ovich or evich

If you are a girl you add
ovna or evna

My name would be Hannah Michaelovna, which means Hannah daughter of Michael.  As a form of respect you would always address an elder, doctor, teacher, ect. by this name.  It is always first name and patronymic not Ms. or Mr. or with their surname.

During this lesson as each new person was introduced I had them repeat the name and it's meaning so the names would seem less weird and they could feel a connection rather then a separation by time and culture.

There are so many fascinating aspects about the arts in general and "The Nutcracker" as we know it is no exception.  

I think the hardest part of creating this lesson was simplifying.  I had to carefully outline my lesson plan and even with that I had enough material for a weeks worth of lessons.  I brought with me a car full of props and visuals and even asked my friend Amelia to come help.  She was busy setting up and switching out these props, helping me keep the lesson flowing and the children engaged.   

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was born in 1840 in a little mountain village in Russia.  When he was 5 he began taking piano lessons and by the age of 8 he could read music just as well as his teachers.  His family then moved to St. Petersburg. Fortunately there was a lot of music going on there at the time. Unfortunately music wasn't considered a suitable profession so his parents made him study law instead.  But that didn't last long. First he started just studying music on the side but eventually he just gave up law and went back to music full time.  After he graduated from the conservatory (a collage for the study of the arts) he became a professor at the brand new conservatory in Moscow and he was being asked to compose music for all kinds of occasions.  Tchaikovsky composed symphony's, songs, opera's and other instrumental music but one type of music that he wrote better then anyone else was ballet.  

Marius Petipa was born in France. His mother was an actress and his father a ballet master.  He traveled through Europe with his family as they worked and performed.  Eventually his family stopped traveling and Petipa began studying music and violin.  At the age of 7 his father began giving him dance lesson and he didn't like them.  Eventually he came to love dance and then he excelled in it.  In 1847 he moved to Russia and eventually was officially named the Premier Master of Ballet. 

During this time in Russia, programs of music, opera and ballet were regularly created for the entertainment of the Czar and his family.  Ivan Alexandrovitch Vsevolozhsky, an enthusiast of the arts, was appointed director of The Imperial Theaters for Moscow.  It was he who was responsible for bringing together the choreographer Marius Petipa and composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky for their first collaboration of Sleeping Beauty that became so hugely popular that Vsevolozhsky proposed they work on another fairy tale, "The Nutcracker".

The Nutcracker was written by E.T.A Hoffman the German born writer, composer and painter.  He wrote the original story "The Nutcracker and The Mouse King", which was included in the Grimm's fairy tale collection.  All his stories were a bit dark, mixing the real world with the make believe and his stories were very popular in Russia.

Petipa never learned Russian or German and he only spoke French. He had never read Hoffman's version of the Nutcracker. Instead he decided to take the plot from a lighter version that was rewritten in 1844  by the french novelist Alexandre Dumas, author of "The Three Musketeers."


Petipa and Tchaikovsky felt the story of the Nutcracker was not dynamic enough for a ballet.  Marie was no roll for a ballerina and who would dance the grand pas deux?  Petipa took control over the production, creating the Sugar Plumb Fairy to rule the kingdom of sweets and turned Marie and Droslymyer into minor rolls.  Tchaikovsky did not agree with these changes.  

Petipa was able to began his choreography before Tchaikovsky even began to composed it.  Petipa sent Tchaikovsky an outline of all the actions with detailed instructions about what type of music he wanted, measure by measure.  This way of working would send most composers running but not Tchaikovsky.  The fact that he wrote such beautiful masterpieces within such a restricted box is a true display of how extremely gifted he was. 

Here is where we stood up and began warming up our brains and bodies.

I divided the children into 3 groups, each group counting and performing different movement to a musical rhythm.

Whole notes - 4 counts - stomp
Half notes - 2 counts - clap hands
quarter notes - 1 count - pat legs

For some this was a first glimpse into music and it was a joy to watch those wheels start turning.

From here we made it
a bit more challenging with faster rhythms.

While Petipa was giving his detailed instructions, Tchicovsky had to interpret this into his music.  How do the soldiers and mice move?  The music needed to match the movement.  

I gave the kids movements to match this rhythm, simple instructions on where to go as well as an exercise in acting and how we must not break character.  

The mice scurry about the room

The soldiers where stiff with sharp movements 
When the soldiers entered with stiff bodies and sharp movements they had to keep their serious faces, as the mice in all their mischievousness, scurried around them, making faces and trying to get them to break character.

From here me moved into the dance of the snowflakes and a lesson in geometry.  

Creating precise angles, shapes and symmetry is very important to dance.  Have you ever watched a troop of soldiers march, salute or run drills?  They are always together in both timing and movement. Dancers train with this exact goal, to be unified in order to create a clean image.  In fact, ballet use to be a part of military training.

The angles and symmetry of position are very important in creating a clean balanced dance.  It is the symmetry that sets it apart from the chaotic randomness that is all around us.

I asked the kids if they had ever seen the Radio City Rockettes.

They have a very strict height requirement and must be between 5'6" and 5'10".  The Rockette's are known for their precision and this precision would not happen if they were not close in height.  If a short and tall dancer both kicked at a 90 degree angle the taller girls legs would still be higher then the shorter girls and if they both took steps lifting their legs at the same angle the taller girl would still have longer steps.

I had the children line up into a straight line tallest to shortest and told them we were going to build an equilateral triangle.  From the line, I choose the 3 closest in height and had them lay on the ground to form the triangle.  If we had switched one of these children with a taller or shorter one the triangle would no longer have equal angels.  As dancers move within formations, the timing and angles have to be unified to create a clean look.

Soon after rehearsals for The Nutcracker began Petipa became sick and had to hand his duties over to the second in command, the ballet master Lev Ivanovich Ivanov.  Petipa and Ivanov were very different in their personalities and styles of both teaching and choreography. Ivanov, who always fell into Petipa's shadow, now had the job of taking Petipa's vision and notes and turning them into the ballet.

When the Nutcracker was first performed in 1892 not many people liked it.  There was one scene however that people loved, the snow scene.  This dance in particular was not like Petipa and was instead a reflection on Ivanov's talents.  The dance is like snow swirling on a window or ice. Ivanov created a dance that felt urgent and spontaneous, using new complicated formations that turned into new designs likes stars, crosses and circles within circles.  This was very different from Petipa's more controlled and simple formations.

For the next movement activity I used paper plates as ice skates. I wanted them to feel as if they were the snowflakes sliding around on the ice.  We set up many floor markers and taped lines creating zig zags and tight circles to help them perform and visualize the sharp angels and precision that go into dance.  

We ended the dance using a parachute.  With everyone holding onto a handle, we could stretch out our circle, running together, both slow and fast, without loosing the shape.

We then moved into the second act, which also happens to be a great lesson in geography.  I used a map to point out the countries represented in the Land of Sweets and what it is they brought or danced for both Marie (or Clara) and the Prince.  Due to time constraints, I was only able to incorporate a few of these dances into our lesson and movement time, but I was able to at least provide a little information about each.

For the dance of Tea from China it became a lesson on both sound and space.  We started by discussing the differences of both the string and wind instruments and the unique sound both of them have.  The Flute gives us a high sound and the strings gave us a lower sound and we could reflect those sounds with our movements.  

I placed hula hoops around the room and paired students together in each hoop.  The hoop represented our personal space and the space outside of our hoops was general space.  As the music played, the students went around their hoops. During the high flute music we walked on our toes, waving the ribbon sticks high. During the low string sound, we went low and shook our ribbons low.  When the music grew louder we moved from our personal space to the general space using the same movements around the room.  When the two instruments joined together it creates a very excited sound and so with this music we began jumping back to our hoop (personal space) and at the very end we jumped into the hoop and posed. 

Our next dance was the Candy Canes from Russia.  This dance is actually called a trepak or tropak which is a Ukrainian celebration dance.  It is described as a brisk allegro which means sharp sounds with quick beats.  This dance is considered a folk dance which means it was a social dance that was preformed at gatherings by everyone, not just those with training and it was something that was passed down to them through parents and grandparents.  The Trepak went out of style in the 1930's. The country went through wars and many bad things. The people didn't have anything to celebrate during this time so it stopped being danced.   Although it is not performed as a celebration, it is a historical reminder of the people and culture that once were.

The traditional Tropak didn't survive but what did survive of this dance is the simple walks with a syncopated stomp.  The stomp was big and strong and in order for them to grasp the power behind the stomp I had to put it into a context they could understand.

For each stomp we substituted it for a superhero comic book throwing punch.  We followed the chart measure by measure as the students very excitedly turned into crime fighting super hero's.  From there is was a natural progression to switch the punches for a strong stomp and so we repeated the song with simple choreography which included stomps, small kicks, small steps and turns.

I've often been asked what the dance of the Reed Flute is, what country it represents or what treat they bring.  This dance represents what the natural world has to offer.  The dancer to perform this dance is often called the Mirliton which is a pear shaped vegetable that forms on a vine.  Sometimes she is renamed the Marzipan which is a confection used in making sweets and is often made to look like fruits and vegetables.  The Reed Flute, in which the Mirliton is often shown dancing with, is an instrument that has been around for thousands of years and has been made by people all over the world. It is a simple wind instrument made from hollowed reeds.

marzipan shaped fruit
Our next dance was Mother Ginger and her Polichinelles. Or as Petipa originally called it, Dance of the 32 Buffoons, with Mére Gigogne.

This is a favorite among children because of the little children that coming running out from under the giant skirt.  Mother Ginger is the equivalent to the old lady that lived in the shoe.  There are many legends and folklore of how this beloved fairy tale came to be but this dance represents France and the Polichinelles (little french clowns) that run out of her skirt bringing Bon Bon's.  

For this dance we used a giant mat and pretended it was the giant skirt.  All the children hid behind the mat as we slowly made it to the center of the studio.  From there they escaped and became the Polichinelles.  Once again we used simple choreography during a portion of this dance and when I called all the children back to the pretend skirt they were able to get silly and become the little clowns, not listening to their Mother.

Our final dance was the Waltz of the flowers.  The waltz is a classical folk dance that has developed over time.  I explained to the students how dance had been a form of entertainment throughout history and when people got together they performed these dances that everyone just picked up on and knew.  The waltz was one of them and so in many classical ballets we see this same example. The towns people would get together or the kingdom would come together and they would waltz.  Unlike the folk dance of the Trepak the waltz is still performed today. 

With the Waltz of the flowers playing we all held hands, and moving both forwards and backwards we waltz together using the down, up, up, down, up, up pattern.

So how is it the Nutcracker came to be what it is today?

We had discussed how the initial review for The Nutcracker was not good but Tchaikovsky music was brilliant and still to this day stand alone for its beauty.  In the years that followed the original production of The Nutcracker, many dances were re-choreographed but a few of them remained the same passed down through both dance notation and the dancers memories. 

Although the story took place in France during the French Revolution, the ballet was a reflection of Russian culture and their Christmases.  

Georgi Melitonovitch Balanchivadze, or who many know as George Balanchine, grew up in Russia dancing as a student at the Imperial Ballet School.  He grew up dancing the classics, including the Nutcracker.  Eventually Balanchine made his way to America were he opened the School of American Ballet. He pulled from his memories of the choreography he had once seen and performed and the memories of his Russian Christmases re-choreographing the ballet.  His production debuted in New York, February of 1954, and has been performed every year since.  Although his Nutcracker was not the first to be performed in America, it was his version that made it famous in the U.S. and it's his version that is performed or imitated every Christmas. 

 Blogs that deserve credit for helping me develop this lesson plan

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.