This weekend, we had the exciting opportunity to stay with Swedish families in Stockholm. Sam and I stayed with the Maunsbachs, a charming family with three middle-school-aged daughters. It was a truly unique experience. Leslie Maunsbach was born in the United States and went to Luther College before marrying her husband, Bengt, and moving to Sweden. In their home, Sam and I got to see how Swedish and American culture can mesh flawlessly.
Our host sisters insisted that the fries at Swedish McDonalds were better than the American variety, so of course we had to test it out. Over our lunch of cheeseburgers and fries, Sam and I were told a little bit about the Swedish version of the Nutcracker, which we would see that night at the Royal Opera. The ballet is another example of cultures smoothly building off of one another, just as we saw in the Maunsbach home.
I was expecting to see the ballet I was familiar with: The Nutcracker performs opposite Clara, the young girl who nursed him to health, and they enter a fantasy land filled with sugar plums and dancers from across the globe. What I saw instead was a very Swedish version of the classic Christmas Ballet. In Sweden, nutcrackers shaped like soldiers are not common, so instead, the Nutcracker is shaped like a horse, which is a popular motif here.
As we watched the ballet, we noticed more differences. Clara, the main character, is given a more suitably Swedish name: Lotta, and her brother Fritz is known as Petter. Uncle Drosselmeyer is known to the Swedes as Uncle Blue, and is accompanied by Aunt Green, Aunt Brown, and Aunt Lavender. Not only are the characters altered, but the storyline itself is changed. The Swedish version is based on a story by Elsa Beskow called Petter and Lotta’s Christmas. It is not Lotta who dances with the Nutcracker prince, but a maid, who slowly sheds her maid’s uniform to reveal that she is the Swedish version of the Sugar Plum Fairy.
The dances were also very different. It was interested to see Swedish culture imposed on Tchaikovsky’s classic music. Once Lotta, Petter and the Nutcracker entered the fantasy land, we watched snowflakes, gingerbread men, peppermint candy, Christmas crackers, and a kind of traditional Swedish Christmas flower dance, entertaining the children. The dance that stood out to me the most was when Petter emerged with three of the defeated rats on leashes and in bright red point shoes. I was surprised because I was used to that music being paired with the dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, not hairy, enslaved rats.
Coming to Sweden, I expected it to be perhaps colder than Iowa, but not too different culturally. After all, both of our countries are part of the global economy and are rapidly modernizing. However, watching the Nutcracker with my host family showed me that Sweden has a rich cultural history it is unwilling to let go of, and they are proud of the art produced in their country. The coolest part for me was that I cannot say which version of the Nutcracker is better. The version I knew before and the Swedish version certainly have their differences, but neither surpasses the other in artistry, thoughtfulness, or design.