What Dolls Do

Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Going to the Nutcracker Set on YouTube

prelude: Dollhouse Christmas: file://localhost/Users/macmini/Desktop/▶%20Dollhouse%20Christmas%20-%20YouTube.webloc

1 Going to the Nutcracker: file://localhost/Users/macmini/Desktop/▶%201%20Going%20to%20the%20Nutcracker%20-%20YouTube.webloc

2 Parents and Presents:  file://localhost/Users/macmini/Desktop/▶%202%20Parents%20&%20Presents%20-%20YouTube-1.webloc

3 Toys and Guests: file://localhost/Users/macmini/Desktop/▶%203%20Toys%20&%20Guests%20-%20YouTube-1.webloc

4a Later that Night:  file://localhost/Users/macmini/Desktop/▶%204%20a%20Later%20That%20Night%20-%20YouTube.webloc

4b Later That Night: file://localhost/Users/macmini/Desktop/4%20b%20Later%20That%20Night%20(WS)%20-%20YouTube.webloc

5 Toy Soldiers: file://localhost/Users/macmini/Desktop/Going%20to%20the%20Nutcracker/▶%205%20Toy%20Soldiers%20-%20YouTube.webloc

6 Into the Christmas Tree: file://localhost/Users/macmini/Desktop/Going%20to%20the%20Nutcracker/▶%206%20Into%20the%20Christmas%20Tree%20HDWS720%20-%20YouTube.webloc

7 Waltz of the Snowflakes: file://localhost/Users/macmini/Desktop/Going%20to%20the%20Nutcracker/▶%207%20Waltz%20of%20the%20Snowflakes%20WS%20-%20YouTube.webloc

Going to the Nutcracker 

A review  by Hawk Madrone

In Writers' Group once, I said I wished my work would get some serious critical attention.  Here is a review my friend Hawk Madrone wrote in response -  about Going to the Nutcracker, the doll photograph video series I posted on Youtube.  Thank you so much, Madrone. Tangren

Hawk Madrone
January 7, 2012

Dolls held no interest for me when I was a child. Oh, I had one or two, and I do remember at least one occasion when I pretended to be pretending with them. I was standing in front of a stuffed chair in the living room, the dolls resting on the seat, all in view of my mother who no doubt was pleased that I was acting like the little girl she so much wanted me to be. I think there were visitors, including another girl who apparently thought playing with dolls was just the thing. I could not have been older than early elementary school, and possibly younger, but I remember distinctly thinking, feeling, as I stood there and acted the part expected of me, that this was empty activity. It was lifeless. The dolls had no mystery to them. They did not do anything.  That may be my last memory – indeed, right now my only memory – of “playing” with dolls. When a young teenager, I did adore a little stuffed animal which had been given to me by the camp counselor I had a crush on. Not that I “played” with it, but looking at it reminded me of her, her smile, her soft and loving voice, so it had a special place atop the pillows on my bed. 
But dolls? I could more easily make believe with the wooden fence a few blocks away where there was a cattle farm at our edge of town. I’d climb and straddle a wooden rail and was transformed into a cowgirl riding the range out west. I could stay there for a long time, inventing plots and scenarios. When I grew less absorbed in that, I’d climb the nearby big old oak tree where I could be cradled in a lap of intersecting branches. I do not remember making the tree into anything else; it was magical in itself, a great friend I could climb and nestle in.
I grew up with toys for active use. Some I was given: a bicycle, bow and arrows. And some I made, like that summer I hammered together a go-cart of sorts. The product did not hold up for long, but the endeavor was, well, the magic of construction, and I was proud.
No, not dolls. Playing with them was merely an unaspired-for imitation
 of who my mother was, and she did not seem to me to be all that happy in that role herself.

Tangren Alexander, 70, with her little friend Athena, 10, does, indeed, play with dolls. Small dolls, tiny dolls. She understands the world of dolls; she invites them out to play with her, a most loving and attentive playmate. She creates homes for them, one a cabin atop her refrigerator, another which stands tall and wide with many floors against a parlor wall. The world of the miniature is celebrated here, and Tangren is a genius at assemblage, at story-telling with placement, with change, with transition. 
Sometimes she gives the dolls new life with clothes she designs, hairstyles she alters, makes new dolls out of parts from others.  She gives them biographies with photographs made to dissolve into each other on a DVD, synchronized perfectly with music, telling their story. This is playing-with-dolls raised to the level of art.
One such DVD creation is “Going to the Nutcracker”, a seven part enactment by the dolls of the classic story-ballet The Nutcracker set to music by Tchaikovsky.  As the Prelude, “Dollhouse Christmas”, begins I peer through the window panes of a door and am transported into another world, one populated by all things needed in a well-appointed house. Then I am taken inside where there are furniture, children and adults, pets, the Christmas tree with gifts beneath it, a candelabra on the grand piano, paintings on the walls, pies ready for the eating, Santa and Kwan Yin on the mantle (a multicultural touch), along with an old-fashioned clock, and countless more details to make a complete home for dolls, all this in amazing miniature. Even the miniature is miniaturized! : A snowglobe waits for a hand to shake it. All this delightfully accompanied by lively Celtic music.
Because I am not well-acquainted with the story of The Nutcracker, it was not until my second viewing of this doll-sized rendition that I understood that as the overture plays and the dolls take their seats in the theater in the second part of the series, I, too, am invited to be in that same audience. Perhaps if the curtain on the stage had started to rise and the camera zoomed in onto the stage, I would have known the feature was beginning. So that when the next part, “Parents and Presents”, opens, I would understand we are now watching The Nutcracker, the performance heralded by the poster on the outside of the theater. The poster, I later realize, displays the older child and the wooden nutcracker she receives for her Christmas gift. So I have been taken onto the stage, into a world within a world! And the story unfolds. 
All manner of beings come forth to tell this story, from a variety of humans, including Afro-Americans and a Lesbian couple (though I wish they were not presented so stereotypically as butch and femme), to mice, cats and dogs, toy soldiers, fairies…. They schmooze, dance, play, fight, win and lose, celebrate … enacting the magic of theater, the magic of pretend. 
There are moments of sheer delight, as when the camera focuses on the face of the toy Nutcracker over the shoulder of the sleeping young woman, or the tiny mouse hole in the wall and one by one the three mice emerge onto the scene. Or when, in the scene of the battle between the mice and the toy soldiers, there is a loud crack in the music just as the “life-size” Mouse King bursts through the wall. 
In fact, all through the story the splendid music is so perfectly synchronized with the action, that it carries the story within its melodies, crescendos, repetitions. 
I smile when the toy Nutcracker is suddenly transformed into a real man, a black man at that; my own feminist lesbian sensitivities are rewarded during the pas de deux performed by the young woman and the Snowflake Fairy Queen, not by the expected male and a female (though I do not know which would be loyal to the original.)  It is a completely enchanting feat of doll-maneuvering when the young woman and her nutcracker-man enter the world of the Christmas tree, which has been in all the scenes with gifts beneath. They pass through the little wooden arch which had been constructed under the tree by the doll-children in an earlier scene, and enter the snow-covered world. Instantly they are transformed into the same small size as those gifts, no bigger than the decorative balls on the tree (how did she do that!?!), and I marvel with them at the world beneath the tree populated by wee elves and animals. If I had to suspend disbelief at all before, here I am completely taken in by cleverness, by realism, by magic..
My intellect reminds me that the persona of this presentation are dolls. This is a series of photographs and not a movie, these beings in many cases must be held up by stands, their arms, heads, legs have been adjusted to effect attitude, interrelationship.  But Tangren and Athena have flawlessly created dolls-as-living, so that as a member of the audience I am not aware of any of those mechanics.
 The computer program used with still photos to create movement does sometimes seem to blur the image during a fast zoom, especially where fast action is wanted, as in the battle scene.  But the effect is worth the temporary optic discomfort.
I have met these dolls in Tangren’s parlor, so I know the small scale I am seeing on this DVD. I think a non-initiate into Tangren’s world might be served by a photo, or even a series of them, showing her and Athena placing the dolls, setting a scene, so that the juxtaposition of their human bodies, their hands, with the dolls demonstrates the tiny-ness  of what the viewer sees. It is surely a labor of love to place an entire roomful of wee beings and their possessions just so, to evoke this colorful, active life. I think showing a glimpse of this process in the beginning would enhance even greater appreciation. 
Tangren has brought playing with dolls to my hesitant universe. Sitting in this audience is reminiscent of sitting so contentedly in the magical lap of my childhood’s oak tree.  I wish my no longer living mother could sit in this audience with me, play with me with these dolls, be as captivated, entertained, as am I.

Review by Hawk Madrone, author of 
Weeding at Dawn: A Lesbian Country Life
 as well as articles and stories appearing in many anthologies and periodicals.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

An Easter Video

Athena DiProperzio and I have released a video, Dollhouse Easter Morning.  It's taken in my parlor where Pearl Clavel and the Madelines have their home.  Nearly all the photos are by Athena; I held a reflector to bounce light into the rooms.  We both did the imagining and posing.
The Easter bunny is played by Peter, Athena's long-time friend.  She made his coat when she was 4 or so.
We made the Easter baskets by weaving small strips of construction paper; most of the eggs are of Fimo.
Dollhouse, Easter Morning

For Tee

My newest doll video, Sunday Morning, took one day instead of one year.  It's in honor of my friend, Tee Corinne, a lesbian photographer, writer, artist, cultural worker, life artist.
Years ago, Tee gave me the doll with the greyish-blond hair; she had rescued her from a thrift shop and made her tiny kimono.   ...And the Rosie doll has always reminded me a bit of Tee, something about the way she smiles.  Tee is embodied by Rosie; but in fact, she would have been the one wearing a kimono; so a bit of her is in each of them.  ...No real story here, just a morning breakfast, and two women who can't seem to stop smiling.
Music by Margie Adams
Sunday Morning

My Flickr page


Saturday, March 3, 2012

Why the Nutcracker? FAQs about The Nutcracker Ballet, including those I sometimes ask myself

Though I think of myself as a writer, this last year I spent the entire of my creative energy on a visual project, creating little slide-show "movies" of stories acted out by dolls.   Mostly in a revisualizing of the Nutcracker Ballet, as acted out by Barbie dolls.
http://www.youtube.com/user/tangrena  (Look at the list under the main picture.  There are eight little video segments of the Nutcracker - but the list is jumbled now, and the new format doesn't give me a way to fix it.  Just start with "1 Going to the Nutcracker" - then go to "2 Parents and Presents" then 3, 4a, 4b, 5, 6, through "7 The Waltz of the Snowflakes".)

So, you are a feminist lesbian writer.  Why the Nutcracker?
A. The straightforward answer is: my fairy grandchildren and I were setting up Christmas in the dollhouse in my parlor.  We were in the basement gathering Christmas things in 1:6 scale (Barbie-size) when I noticed the box of Nutcracker costumes and dolls.  And the old cardboard Little Theater.  An idea!  After their Christmas party, the dolls could attend the Nutcracker Ballet!  We carried everything upstairs.
It was as simple as that.  
A lifetime of collecting and playing with these dolls.  
And if I had bought a Nutcracker set, it presumably was with the thought of one day acting out The Nutcracker.
That evening the Madeline dolls had their tree-trimming party, and then attended a hastily-assembled performance of the ballet.   
It went from there.  
I had been photographing dolls for many years; and Athena (age 10 that year) and I had photographed together.  
Before I could put it all away, the Nutcracker took on a life of its own.  Open boxes of doll clothes soon littered the living room, collections of dolls, props, and costumes assembled themselves.  Later a city grew in the corner where the Christmas tree had been.  
It took all year to set up these scenes, and to photograph them, inventing as we went, Athena and I, playing on the traditional Nutcracker story.  And then for me to create these slideshow movies from the photos we took.    We got half way through the Ballet, completing Act One with The Waltz of the Snowflakes.  Hopefully the rest is to come before next Christmas.

B.  But there is another sort  of answer to “Why the Nutcracker?”.
What made it call to me, perhaps, is that attending this ballet is something women and girls to do together at Christmastime: mothers and daughters, aunts and grandmothers, friends.  There are some little boys; and some of them will become enchanted with dance.  But the overwhelming majority of the audience is female. 
In my family, and in many others, a love of ballet was passed on in the female line.
It would be perfectly in character for Pearl Clavel and the Madelines, who live in the dollhouse, and their friends, the two aunts, to attend this ballet.
Attending The Nutcracker as a Christmas tradition, as it turns out, dates from only the nineteen-fifties - but that was the decade when I became aware of such things: I thought it had always been that way.  It has been that way since, with ballet companies always being able to count on large audiences when time for “The Nut” comes around again.
Why might this production of The Nutcracker be considered feminist?  or  matriarchal? or at least more pro-women than the traditional Nutcracker story?

Note the loving looks the camera catches between mothers and daughters, sisters, aunts, women friends, and lovers.

The scene with the Matryoshkya dolls is a celebration of matrilineage, of women’s amazing power to give birth, and of the fun of playing with dolls.  In this sequence we descend yet another dimension, into a story enacted by dolls being played with by dolls.

Because these little “movies” affirm believing in magic.  
Not everyone would agree that a love of believing in magic is feminist, 
but I think it can be.

That first touch between Clara and the Snowflake fairy, does it remind you of anything?  Possibly by Michelangelo?

In our film version of the living room where the Nutcracker Ballet begins, above the mantlepiece hangs “The Green and Yellow Forest” by by Natal'ia Goncharova, a Rayonist painter of the early 1900s.  (Or rather, most of the painting.  I had to crop it a bit to fit Mattel’s frame.)  
It is a luminous work whose hidden forms only gradually become clear as one looks, an invocation of fairyland, it seems to me.  So, a guest appearance for a woman painter who ought to be more remembered.  That’s feminist.
What is the Nutcracker Ballet?  
The Nutcracker Ballet was written by Tchaikovsky for an 1892 St.Petersburg audience, using the plot of a German story by E.T.A. Hoffmann. 
The composer never considered it one of his great works, though through the years it has become his best known and most beloved.  
What is the plot of The Nutcracker Ballet?  How does Our Version differ?
The ballet has a basic plot; but, judging from a lot of performances posted on video, there is room for variety within the traditional sequence.  We chose to bend it in a woman-positive direction.  And, of course, dolls can’t dance very well, so we’ve built on the things they can do, and the materials at hand.

In the Nutcracker Ballet’s story there is always an old-fashioned family, a Christmas tree, a dance by the parents.  I have made them an imaginary avant-garde St. Petersburg family of about 1910. 
Guests arrive.  There’s a dance by the Grandfathers.  (I used this music for other things.)  There are presents for the children.  One of the guests is an uncle and/or toymaker, often portrayed as a bit creepy; he gives Clara the present of a nutcracker.  
It is a doll-like wooden figure painted in military regalia, with prominent teeth.  To use it, a nut would have been placed in the Nutcracker’s opened mouth, and his teeth then levered or screwed together until the hull gave way.  (I know there may be some who might consider this a feminist image, but I’m not going there.)  
For unknown reasons the gift delights Clara.  The best I can say is that perhaps she senses the thing’s magical potential.
In the course of the Christmas party the Nutcracker gets broken.  Most versions attribute the this to Clara’s little brother; but we chose to paint him more positively, and laid the blame on the mice, “later that night”.  
This gives a good reason for the Battle between the Nutcracker, mended and come to life, and the Mouse King and his Army, a feature of every Nutcracker ballet.  The Mouse King is about to triumph when Clara saves the day, usually by throwing her slipper at him.  But our Clara’s slipper was so soft it was not likely to be of help.  Instead we had her bring the toy soldiers to life.

After the battle, the rather grotesque Nutcracker reveals himself to be/turns into a handsome young man, often called a Prince.  In our story he is certainly personable, but is not, as in most versions, her Dream Lover.  
He is Clara’s friend, and the guide into an enchanted land; he is, in fact, an incarnation of the  young toymaker who gave her the nutcracker in the first place.
After the battle with the mice is won, and the Nutcracker has turned handsome, either Clara and he grow smaller, or the world grows larger.  They enter an enchanted land, to a piece of music called “Into the Christmas Trees”, where many an idyllic pas de deux has been danced in a snowy forest.  
I placed their dance before the transition to the magic land, and made the entrance be through the gate the children had built of toy blocks earlier.  The gateway had been knocked down during the mouse-fight; and now these two nearly-grownups turn from their dancing to rebuild it.  And then find themselves entering through that gate into the fairyland.  To celebrate how when we play with toys we build little worlds - and enter them.
The print on the record label had been tiny: I misread this music’s title as “Into the Christmas Tree”, and told the story accordingly.  But I like what we did. 

The rest of the Nutcracker Ballet is really a series of set pieces, “dances” traditionally without a plot.  We have photographed the first of these, The Waltz of the Snowflakes, which is the end of Act One, and this is as far as we have taken the project for now. 

Is our Snowflake Waltz feminist?  All I can say is, 
never underestimate the touch of a Snowflake Fairy.
Clara’s experience or dream or whatever it is, will change her.  
Usually this is thought of as: the girl on the edge of womanhood, and her first love for a man (dream or not) effecting the transition.  
A theme not unheard-of before, the girl "becoming a woman" through (hetero) sexual initiation (dream or not).
In our version of this ballet, there is/will be a series of guides and illuminations, 
and growings-up –– rather like becoming a woman over and over again.
Why Barbie dolls?  
Because they are there.
Amazingly, this great richness of miniatures exists.  
I have as much trouble as the next person with the fashion-ridden stereotyped character who haunts Barbie’s name, but the truth is that Mattel’s doll offerings have ranged from ancient Egypt through many periods of history, have ranged the world, and in many cases have included furniture, props, and scenery as well as dolls.  
The first Barbie and her friends were all white, and remained so for far too long, but by now there is no mass doll-maker who has as many kinds of skin color and face shape.  [Unfortunately they all have skinny, tall bodies, so the clothes will be interchangeable.]  
Also, Mattel has made dolls with the greatest variety of ages, on the young side of 30, that is.  But there are even a few youthful “grandparents”.
I’d love to see much more variety, but, still, for richness of materials from which to bring dolls alive, there is no doll line like the Barbies.
Not all the dolls in our film are by  Mattel: we have supplemented with the sweet and wonderfully flexible girl dolls from the Only Hearts Club, and even Fashion Royalty (for the Josephine Baker doll in “Toys and Guests”).
Did I/we make the costumes?  
For the most part, no.  
I could never make such detailed, finely-wrought clothing.  If I’d had to make all the clothes, this performance could never have happened.
We did mix and match costumes.  But some of the dolls, like the snowflake fairy, and the mother and aunts, are just as they came from the box.
The mice are another matter.  Originally finger puppets with short pink flaps for arms and legs, they needed some changes before they could become swordsmice.  I took them to Michelle Bashaw, a seamstress, who made them arms with gloves, legs with boots, and the king's cape, and sewed on their hats and crowns.
Any comments on the music?
One of the delights of doing these videos has been working so closely with Tchaikovsky’s music.  Before that, it had grown clich├ęd for me.  I couldn’t really hear it fresh, until I started working with it and began to know much more intimately its surprising rhythms and irresistible melodies.  
I was amazed how often the sequence of photos worked out with the music, like the high squeeky music as the tiny mice approached the nutcracker, the trumpet when the little brother and the small Nutcracker both raised their trumpets.  Those just happened.  A few were carefully worked out, like the sudden appearance of the Mouse King at the crack of the music.


About Me

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I'm a retired philosophy teacher; now I can play. I photograph dolls, I write (am just finishing a book called TENDERLY: Lesbian Meditations on Deborah Kerr). And I hope to create & sell recorded books for women.