Clara’s Gifts – A Retelling of the Nutcracker Story


By Kate Watson

Each year at Christmas time, The Nutcracker is performed in cities around the world. But Halifax is home to a version that’s unlike any other.

The unique adaptation, which includes acting and puppetry, was created by Leica Hardy and Graham Whitehead in 1991, and has been presented as a co-production by Symphony Nova Scotia, Halifax Dance and Mermaid Theatre every year since.

The story starts in a boarding school dorm, where young Clara falls asleep after bidding her classmates farewell for the holidays. She awakes to do battle with an army of mice and after defeating the Mouse Queen, embarks on a magical journey with the Nutcracker Prince to the court of the Rag Doll Queen. She learns about courage and friendship along the way.

Dartmouth's Marianne Ward, Emma van Zeumeren and Leica Hardy
Dartmouth’s Marianne Ward, Emma van Zeumeren and Leica Hardy

This year, this version of the Nutcracker story is available in a new gorgeous picture book called Clara’s Gifts written by Marianne Ward and Leica Hardy, and illustrated by Emma van Zeumeren.

In 2004, Ward, a Dartmouth-based book editor, took her preschool daughter to the Nutcracker at the Rebecca Cohn. She thought that reading her daughter the story beforehand would make the experience more enjoyable.

“I wanted her to be familiar with the story, because on stage it’s largely wordless. But I couldn’t just go to the library and get the book,” she recalls. “It didn’t exist.”

Her daughter was in a class at Leica Hardy School of Dance, so Ward approached Hardy with the book idea. Together they worked on a manuscript, but when they submitted it to a book publisher, they were told it was too long for a standard picture book format.

The project was put aside for several years, but the duo dusted it off in 2014 in hopes of having it on the shelves for the show’s 25th anniversary in 2015. The process took longer than expected, but Clara’s Gifts is making its debut for this Christmas season

Ward and Hardy approached a young artist who was intimately familiar with both dance and the Halifax production of The Nutcracker. Emma van Zeumeren, who is now in her second year at NSCAD, studied under Hardy and danced in the show for seven years.

“The Art Nouveau-inspired design of the stage production definitely influenced the illustrations,” she says.

“And I think dancing in the production made me really understand the story and gave me a vision for what the illustrations should look like.”


Hardy says that van Zeumeren’s background in dance was a real boon. “She was able to put so much movement and energy into the graphic elements.

“She was able to make the illustrations ‘speak’.”

A free, festive book launch is being held at the Halifax Central Library on Sunday, November 27 at 2pm.  It will include excerpts from The Nutcracker featuring dancers from the cast and puppets from Mermaid Theatre. A cast member will read excerpts from Clara’s Gifts, and everyone can try out some of the show’s choreography with a free dance lesson from Leica Hardy.

Clara’s Gifts is available online, and also at Kept, Woozles, Artistic Sole and during the show at the Rebecca Cohn. It’s also featured on the Nova Scotia Wish List.