Ballet is perhaps the least democratic art form I know of and yet I can't think of a work that is more universally adored than The Nutcracker. Along with A Christmas Carol and It's a Wonderful Life, The Nutcracker is a holiday tradition for families in many places, especially in North America.
This December my daughter Vivienne turned four, the absolute youngest age I could conceive of taking someone to their first Nutcracker. To kick off the holiday season with an outing to this ballet is something I have been eager to do for some time-but which production? In Montreal, you have a couple of choices: there is the big stage version by Les Grands Ballets Canadiens at Place des Arts and a smaller-scale production by Ballet Ouest at Centre Pierre-Péladeau. You might think that a dance critic would be keen, like any parent, to give only the "best" to their little girl-but you'd be wrong. The beauty of The Nutcracker is that it is a ballet not only for dancers and dance enthusiasts at every level, but also for audiences of all ages. Based on the success of our outing to Ballet Ouest's The Sleeping Beauty last spring, I had no doubt that the company, which caters to young audiences, would serve up a holiday feast for both Vivie's and my delight.
But I had another motive for taking my daughter to Ballet Ouest: I understand The Nutcracker's generous spirit because I too performed in similar productions many times over.
Like the teenage cast members of Ballet Ouest who share the stage with professional dancers, I served as a Snowflakes corps de ballets member and took a few turns in solo parts. From my point of view, it is up to adults like me to support companies like Ballet Ouest, which provide opportunities for young dancers to perform more technically demanding parts, for these companies are crucial to both the development of new dance talent and to the continued growth of the art form. As for my daughter, at her age, she is not be able to judge the proficiency of one Snowflakes corps against that of another-to her it would all simply be magic.
Thanks to the hospitable folks at Ballet Ouest, Vivie and I were given a backstage tour before the performance. She saw how the "big girls" (like those she so admires at daycare) were getting made-up to portray children in nineteenth-century Germany, with their sausage-curled hair and ruffled dresses. In the principal dancers' dressing room, she met the Snow Queen and the Sugar Plum Fairy, who showed her the coveted tutu (which, to a four-year-old, defines a ballerina). Later in a hallway, the Nutcracker Prince, gallantly and uncannily in character, took her by the hand as if she were Clara herself and lead her to the stage to show her his Nutcracker headpiece and the set for the opening party scene.
Vivie was speechless, full of wonder at all the new sights, but after we settled into our seats she found her voice: "Mommy, we're in the theatre, right?" calling up her memory of The Sleeping Beauty. As Vivie had learned from that previous experience, we quietly went through the programme, looking at pictures of each scene as she eagerly learned the names of all the characters and divertissements, repeating each name until she got them right. And why not? What could more pleasant than to spend time thinking of Spanish Hot Chocolate, Arabian Coffee, Chinese Tea, Candy Canes and French Mints?
I wasn't sure that a backstage tour wouldn't spoil The Nutcracker for her, but from the first appearance of Clara (who from then on became her "favorite big girl") she was thrilled each time a dancer she'd met earlier appeared on stage. But more than anything it was the story, the staging and the dancing that wowed her. Every detail-Clara and her friends rocking their new dolls at the Christmas party, Drosselmeyer's fantastic conjurings, the little mouse who wept at the Mouse King's demise, the high-flying Russian Cossack and the absurdly tall Madame Bonbonnière with her little dancing Bonbons emerging from her voluminous skirts-all touched and enthralled her to no end.
As for me, the trip backstage and the performance brought back the Ghosts of Nutcrackers Past. Unlike my four-year-old daughter, I had only seen The Nutcracker on TV until the age of eleven. My first live experience of the ballet did not occur until I danced in a production of it as a member of the children's cast for the (now defunct) Dallas Ballet, when the troupe brought its professional production to Corpus Christi, the small South Texas city where I lived.
Indeed, my initiation into The Nutcracker coincided with my entry into the first serious ballet academy I studied at (that one even existed in such a small town was a miracle). Previously I had taken ballet classes at schools of the Dolly Dinkle variety which offered ballet, tap, jazz, baton and the like-all under one roof. The triple-whammy of taking classes with more serious-minded teachers and students, auditioning for a professional ballet master from the Dallas Ballet and the numerous Saturday rehearsals which followed, inspired in me a fascination that quickly developed into a mania for ballet. It was then I bought my first issue of Dance Magazine, began to read about the art, and became obsessed with classical music and the intoxicating atmosphere of the theatre in general.
The excitement of my first Nutcracker can never fully be recaptured. Sure, I had danced in many end-of-the-year recitals, but there wasn't much more required to those than remembering the steps and looking cute. The Nutcracker, on the other hand, required us in our weekly rehearsals to imagine a different world in a different century, not to mention submerge ourselves in an actual story with a plot. In my first Nutcracker outing I played one of Clara's friends at her parents' splendid Christmas party and, like the other lucky children in the cast, I had to not only remember my steps but react to my pretend-parents, to the mysterious Drosselmeyer, and to the unveiling of a magnificent Christmas tree (which in rehearsals was marked by a stool in the center-rear of the studio). This was heady stuff.
By the time the Dallas Ballet rolled into town, the entire cast of children was in a fever pitch of excitement. First were the fittings for our costumes-for us party girls, lovely Victorian dresses complete with petticoats-and then the dress rehearsal with real dancers and real sets! As the Christmas tree grew to enormous proportions (rivaling even the Christmas tree at Manhattan's Rockefeller Center) during the scene-change from the party to the toy-soldiers' battle against the Mouse King, the effect was magical, despite the fact that we had seen how the stagehands created the effects. Another special treat for us South Texans was the next scene, the Land of Snow, with its paper confetti falling gently down-in Corpus, a Victorian Christmas was never really in the offing, what with December temperatures reaching 80 degrees. As for the second act of the Land of Sweets, most inspiring was the pas de deux of the Sugar Plum Fairy with her Cavalier, my first taste of the beauty and decorum that is classical ballet.
After that first Nutcracker, I made up my mind that in the following year's production I would be the ballet's heroine Clara. I signed up for more ballet classes and practiced on my own whenever I could. Indeed, my technical proficiency improved so much that when The Nutcracker auditions came around again, I got one of the coveted children's roles in the Dallas production-not Clara, but one of Drosselmeyer's mechanical dolls, the only character who got to dance en pointe during the performance. It was a bittersweet victory; although I had beat out my ballet school rival (the previous year's Clara) and would get to dance in toe shoes for the part, I would never get to play Clara-the following year, at thirteen, I would be too tall.
I am still not sure I have recovered from that childhood disappointment and yet I continued to dance in The Nutcracker year after year in smaller productions-like that of Ballet Ouest's-and still loved every moment of the rehearsals and performances. And I marveled also at the community spirit that the ballet generated-there were the performers of all ages and backgrounds, the moms sewing costumes, the dads helping with sets, and all the folks who helped out in myriad ways though they had no connection to the production save a desire to have dance.
The ballet opened a new world to me. With music, I became a Tchaikovsky devotee; after wearing-out my Nutcracker vinyl album, I went on to listen to Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty. As much as I loved them, I soon moved on to Tchaikovsky's symphonies and became obsessed with his sixth (and last), The Pathetique-nine days after the premier of which, it is argued, he committed suicide. Tchiakovsky's melancholy life story touched me to no end. As morbid as it seems now, at the age of twelve I pinned a poster of the composer upon my wall, where all my ballet idols were honoured.
By the time I went off to university, however, I had put Tschiakovsky, ballet and other things I deemed childish aside and made room for the composers whom I thought to be more sophisticated. I tried to live a life not so narrow, much like the other students my age, even partaking in-gasp-pop culture. During university, graduate school and beyond, I never again danced in The Nutcracker except for a performance in a modern dance parody of the ballet, The Madcracker, which transformed Clara into a wealthy divorcee and the Nutcracker Prince into a boy-toy, a leather-baby fantasy. It seemed okay then to be cynical about the ballet and groan any time I heard "Dance of the Reed Flutes" piped throughout malls during the holiday season. But truth be told, The Nutcracker still charmed me every time I caught a version on TV. When my daughter was born, I started looking forward to the day I'd be able to share the undying enchantment of the ballet with her.
When I became a dance critic, I once again reacquainted myself with Tchaikovsky and realized that some of the qualities I had admired in other composers were the same ones I loved in his music. I also had come to finally understand why New York City Ballet's George Balanchine-the twentieth-century's greatest choreographer who had displayed such cutting-edge tastes for his day in his appreciation of the music of Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Bartók, and Ives-choreographed some of his last works to Tchaikovsky and mounted in 1981 an entire festival celebrating the composer. It was, you might say, an appropriate swan song for the choreographer, who died a couple of years later. Balanchine as a child had danced at the Maryinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia in the original version of The Nutcracker. In fact, years later, it was Balanchine's 1954 version of the ballet that helped kick off North America's Nutcracker craze, which remains unabated to this day.
Balanchine clearly understood why The Nutcracker is powerful. Its magic has its roots in E.T.A Hoffman's fantastic and creepy original story but it has just as much to do with Tchaikovsky's genius in capturing in music both the excitement of the holiday with its inherent mysteries and longings, and the sorrows and fears of passing from childhood to adulthood.
Perhaps that is why we continue to take our children year-in and year-out to this ballet. The story, at its most basic, makes sense to children. ("Fritz is getting a time-out," said Vivie after Clara's brother broke her nutcracker), but I would suggest that The Nutcracker is for parents too-it allows us to say goodbye again to the unmediated joy we once had at Christmas and to our own childhoods as well. It is a reminder that our own children will be, like Clara, embarking upon a journey to a world that is more complicated than the one of unconditional love we try so hard to surround them with: a world that we cannot protect them from, that holds loss and regret and terror and yet is still so full of the wondrous joy and magic that many of us try to remember each and every Christmas.
A Thank You to Ballet Ouest's Artistic Director Margaret Mehuys, Company Manager Susan Altschul, and the December 3 matinee dancers Mijanoue Lalonde (Sugar Plum Fairy), Alexis Simonot (Nutcracker Prince), Paula Urrutia (Snow Queen) and Gabriela Sinclair-Desgagné (Clara), who graciously met with Vivienne before the performance. And last, but not least, a special thanks to all the children in the cast who gave a memorable performance.
For more about Ballet Ouest, see www.balletouest.com.
For information about Les Grands Ballets Canadiens's performances of The Nutcracker, see www.grandsballets.qc.ca. See you there!
Kena Herod is Maisonneuve's dance critic. Read more columns by Kena Herod.