Sendak shapes a cinematic fairy tale

When he sat down to design a new production of the classic ``Nutcracker'' ballet - to be produced on stage and then made into this season's most ambitious holiday movie - author/artist Maurice Sendak was anything but sentimental in his approach. For one thing, he wasn't too fond of the ``Nutcracker'' itself. ``I don't like the ballet particularly,'' he told me not long ago. ``I've been taking kids to see it for years, but to me it seems really quite dull. ... And there's no connection between the two acts. Tchaikovsky complained of that himself, when he composed the music.''

For another thing, he felt the ballet had already been produced too often. ``We are choked with `Nutcrackers.' There was no reason in the world to do another one!''

What finally lured him into the project was the challenge of freshly conceiving the work - basing it less on traditional stage versions than on the original E.T.A. Hoffmann fairy tale. The aim, Mr. Sendak says, ``was to do something so novel, so personal, and so interesting that it would be truer to Tchaikovsky, truer to Hoffmann, and truer to Mozart - who I think is the figure lurking behind the whole shebang.''

After agreeing on this approach, Sendak and choreographer Kent Stowell worked for two years on a scenario that drew more from Hoffmann than other versions do - using his story of a girl's childlike but romantic dream to link the ballet's celebrated dances.

One result of their work was a bestselling new edition of the Hoffmann story with Sendak illustrations. Another was a new stage production danced by Mr. Stowell's own Pacific Northwest Ballet.

And now that production has been turned into the first ``Nutcracker'' movie, based on the stage version but rendered into new cinematic terms by director Carroll Ballard, of ``The Black Stallion'' and ``Never Cry Wolf'' fame.

Sendak is best known as writer and illustrator of many distinguished children's books, including the much-loved ``Where the Wild Things Are'' and ``Higgledy Piggledy Pop!'' among others. He bowed as a scenic designer almost 10 years ago, when director Frank Corsaro signed him onto a production of ``The Magic Flute,'' an opera Sendak had always revered.

He was beckoned to the ``Nutcracker'' project by choreographer Stowell, whose children had enthusiastically read the Sendak books - in German, since Stowell and his wife were running the Frankfurt Ballet at the time.

Sendak's own childhood was a ``humble'' one in Brooklyn, where his artistic bent came as a surprise to his family. ``My parents were immigrants,'' he recalls. ``My father wanted his two sons to be football players and my sister to be a private secretary who would marry the rich boss. He had a rather television view of his hopes for his children.

``But nothing like that turned out. We read books and were green in pallor. My brother and I grew up to be artists, although my sister didn't, because women were not encouraged to then. It was all I could do, and I've been doing it since I was a little boy. ... I think it was in the wiring.''

Although many artists see themselves as ``nonverbal'' and many authors call themselves ``word people,'' Sendak has combined the visual and the verbal in his career. He feels both dimensions are central to his personality.

``I can't imagine being an illustrator and not having a word thing,'' he says. ``I am primarily an avid reader, and I always was, from childhood on. I could only see pictures via words, so I need words.

``Put me in front of a canvas, and you'll find me there a year later, standing in the same position with nothing on the canvas. Put me in front of a book, though, and pictures come like Polaroid images in my head. I am a `born illustrator' in the sense that I identify so closely with language and love language!''

His special love affair with children's books came not by design, but through the natural growth of his interests and talents.

``It was completely unintentional,'' Sendak muses. ``I don't have children, and I was never particularly interested in addressing myself to children. It's just that there was no other way to categorize what I do except to call it a children's book. There are no grown-up scenes. Pigs talk and dogs have experiences in life. Those things were coming out of a man's sensibility ..., but the most natural place to put them was on the children's shelf.''

Looking back on his career so far, he's pleased at how events have worked out. ``As an audience,'' he says with conviction, ``children are the most catholic in taste - the most unprejudiced and the most ferocious in honesty, in terms of what they like and don't like.''

Sendak feels strongly that many so-called children's classics - including the tales of the Brothers Grimm, which he has illustrated extensively - are sophisticated literary creations.

``The irony of the situation,'' he says, ``is that Grimm was never originally intended for children. The brothers were two dried-out, erudite men who collected these tales for philological reasons, to preserve them. They went up into the hills and recorded these last peasants, who still recollected stories that were not written down but told from generation to generation. And these were considered ... very serious. They were telling something about life, in a form that's like a parable.''

Therefore he regrets overzealous efforts to ``water down and reduce'' timeless tales. ``Even in the 1830s or 1840s ... we began to underestimate children, as though being small meant that everything was small, including their hearts and their brains. We began to condescend to them right from the beginning. And they never got the real stuff.''

This doesn't mean that children's books should deal with truly grown-up matters. ``I know that willy-nilly, whether I like it or not, my audience is mostly children,'' he says. ``And so I have to exert a certain control over the material. There are certain subjects I would not want children to be involved in, certain subjects they can't be ready for. No way.''

He adds, however, that he is interested in treating sophisticated subjects in other ways than through his books. He feels that his latest career, as a stage and movie designer, may provide an outlet for other facets of his artistry.

So future plans for Sendak include more than his usual writing and illustrating. ``I have a list of operas I would like to do,'' he reveals. ``I'd like to design operas by Mozart and Janacek - the two composers I really would devote my creative life to. ... Mozart has been the greatest solace of my artistic life, and I would love to pay him back for everything he's done for me by designing operas for him.''

David Sterritt is the Monitor's film critic.

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