The Nutcracker: Background information when reading The Turnout

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The Turnout

by Megan Abbott

The Turnout by Megan Abbott X
The Turnout by Megan Abbott
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  • First Published:
    Aug 2021, 352 pages

    May 2022, 368 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Maria Katsulos
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About this Book

The Nutcracker

This article relates to The Turnout

Print Review

A performance of The Nutcracker in Minsk, Belarus Megan Abbott's The Turnout, a novel about two twin sisters who are dancers, begins at the start of The Nutcracker season. Apart from being a universally beloved show with deep roots in American ballet, The Nutcracker is also the Durant School of Dance's main moneymaker: "Every year, their fall enrollment increased twenty percent because of all these girls wanting to be Clara. Soon after, their winter enrollment increased another ten percent from girls in the audience who fell in love with the tutus and magic."

This economic reliance on the famous ballet rings true for real-life dance studios, too; Natalie Rouland writes in a blog post for the Wilson Center in Washington DC that The Nutcracker "continues to provide essential ticket-sale revenue and performance experience for ballet companies and schools across America." Even the biggest and best companies are not exempt from this — the New York Times reports that the New York City Ballet generated "more than $15.3 million in ticket sales out of about $35 million in total" with The Nutcracker in 2019, while a 2020 NPR article states that the Chicago Joffrey made about "half of its annual earned revenue" (pre-pandemic) from the show.

With such an iconic story and this wide reach, surely The Nutcracker is familiar to most of us. Perhaps we were lucky enough to see it on stage. Or perhaps we have just learned about it through cultural osmosis. But how much do we really know about the story behind the show?

Despite the sweet nature of the onstage ballet, the original story on which it is based, written by Prussian author E.T.A. Hoffman in 1816, is quite different. Ballet Arizona describes this fairytale as "much darker and bloodier than the ballet you see on stage today." Abbott references it several times throughout The Turnout, remarking that both twins — but especially Marie — grew up fascinated by this gory tale. One fact that Abbott brings up time and time again is that in the original story, Clara was not Clara but a little girl named Marie; she writes that while "Clara" means "bright and clear," "Marie" means "rebellious." Strikingly, one twin sister in The Turnout shares a name with this original, darker heroine, while the other, Dara, has a name that rhymes with "Clara."

Although Abbott does not mention him by name, it was the famous French writer Alexandre Dumas who rewrote Hoffmann's monstrous story into something more family-friendly in 1845. In Dumas's version Clara's godfather Drosselmeier is a warm figure. Yet Hoffmann did not see him this way — nor does Abbott. "Drosselmeier" can be translated from German as "somebody who stirs things up." Abbott sees the character as stirring feelings in Clara/Marie that accompany the grand jeté into womanhood; an older dance teacher, Miss Sylvie, says that Drosselmeier's character functions "as a parable, no?…Drosselmeier seduced [Clara]. And she is glad."

During the holiday season, certain versions of The Nutcracker will be available to watch either onstage or online; for example, in New York, Washington DC, Chicago and Houston. (Some performances have issued changes during the pandemic. While the New York City Ballet will be returning to the stage in November 2021, there will be no children under 12 in the cast, despite the fact that George Balanchine's original 1950s choreography featured 35 roles for children.) Watching the show, it is easy to be transported on the strains of Tchaikovsky's music within the sugared forest of Dumas's rewritten story. But by reading The Turnout and remembering the roots of this dark fairytale, we can contextualize the dream-slash-nightmare on the stage before us.

A performance of The Nutcracker in Minsk, Belarus at the Opera and Ballet Theatre. Photo by Хомелка (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Filed under Music and the Arts

Article by Maria Katsulos

This "beyond the book article" relates to The Turnout. It originally ran in October 2021 and has been updated for the May 2022 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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