For civilians, the first strains of Tchaikovsky’s famous ballet started leaking out of store Muzak and into your consciousness the day after Thanksgiving. For ballet parents like me, it’s been in constant rotation since September, when the two underage dancers in my house started rehearsing for the big performances, coming up December 14 and 15. You think YOU’RE sick of hearing Waltz of the Flowers by December 10th? You have no idea.
Still, I love this ballet, and I love the entire time-consuming, repetitive, dramatic project that is staging a student performance of the Nutcracker every year. Because it’s taught our entire family a thing or two about a thing or two.
1. Reaching your full potential takes bold vision. During the “House” scene in Act 1, Herr Drosselmeyer opens three big boxes to reveal a dancing bear, a dancing dog, and a dancing cat who proceed to act out a sweet if vaguely disturbing interspecies love triangle. I liked that scene fine, until a dad who had clearly been volunteering backstage for a few hours too many confessed to me, “Just once, I’d like to see the bear come out of the box, look around, and then just freakin’ maul Marie and her entire family.” Now that I have a vision of what could be, I just can’t be satisfied with what is.
3. Be polite to everyone. In that same first house scene, three children are given Nutcrackers. Only one, Marie, really gives a sincere thanks to the admittedly creepy guy who wears a cape and character shoes. Ninety minutes later, that same child has taken a psychedelic journey to Candyland and is being feted by Bon Bons, Spanish dancers, Arabian dancers, and a slew of men in tights, while the less effusive siblings are stuck home in bed snoring away. Good manners always pay off.
2. Sometimes it’s not you. It’s the ass costume. My eldest daughter is playing Mother Ginger this year, the lady in the big skirt under which tiny dancers flow like sand fleas. The costume is a big architectural challenge to put on and dance in, and one of the teachers cryptically explained to my daughter, as she struggled into it, that it’s an “ass costume.” The meaning was left unexplained. But I interpret it as follows, on behalf of my daughter and her lovely, strong dancer’s figure: sometimes you will try something on and no matter how lovely and strong you are, it’s just not going to fit comfortably. Don’t take it personally: it’s not you, it’s the ass costume.
4. Everyone’s got a story. For a few years, my friend Glynis and I worked at the ticket booth. She sold new tickets, I handled distribution of Will Call tickets. We looked forward to this because, in theory, it gave us four or five hours over a single weekend to sit together and chat. The problem is that no one ever said, “May I have my tickets? Thanks!” Instead, every single person who bought or picked up a ticket felt compelled to explain to us why they bought it, where they had driven from, how their friend they were picking up the ticket for might be a little late, what they’d just eaten for lunch. They must have mistaken the ticket table for the StoryCorps booth. Still, they always seemed pleased to be heard.
5. You can’t pick your kids’ passions. I took ballet for a year, when I was six, in the basement of a bowling alley in Rochester, so it never really occurred to me that my kids would be dancers. When they were little, we cycled them through various sports and activities, as you do, waiting to see what stuck. Then one summer day, Glynis’ twins’ invited my kids to try a free class at the dance studio where they were both so involved. Five years later, Glynis’ daughters are long gone onto other pursuits, and our kids are there five days a week (seven days a week in the month before the Nutcracker.) It’s amazing to see what they’ve accomplished, considering how clueless their parents are about the entire artistic dance form.
6. It takes hard work to make something look easy. Right now, my kids are dancing through pointe shoes at a rate of a pair every two weeks. Point shoes could be used to hammer nails in walls when they’re fresh, so dancing them into softness and then actually wearing holes into them takes hours and hours of work. All the kids are working their butts off, well past the point of it being fun anymore and far into the Magical Fairyland of overtired goofiness and bunions. These girls may look like delicate snowflakes onstage, but they’re tough as torn toenails underneath.
In fact, I think they’d give a rampaging bear a run for the money.
Who doesn’t love a good old-fashioned ballet in the produce section? Here are a few dancers from the Oakland Ballet (the company, not the school) dancing a selection from the Nutcracker at Whole Foods.