A four-year-old's "Nutcracker' (2nd comment)

Fear of mice, conquered

Genuine surprises for genuine kids.
Genuine surprises for genuine kids.

When last we peeked in on my granddaughter, Thelma Rubin-Rottenberg of Brooklyn— a year ago— she was not quite three years old and attending the Pennsylvania Ballet's Nutcracker for the very first time. As I reported then, she was terrified by the human-size mouse sitting in the lobby before the performance to pose for pictures with kids and overwhelmed by the scale and elegance of the Academy of Music (in which respects New York has no equal). (See "To see with the eyes of a child," December 2010.)

But once we got Thelma into her seat and the curtain rose, she was mesmerized by the combination of music and dance that unfolded before her. Her eyes didn't leave the stage for one second. Although we'd expected to take her home at intermission, she remained for the second half with the same rapt attention.

Last week we brought Thelma back for a second helping. She's a year older and about to begin ballet lessons herself. This time her sight lines were enhanced, thanks to a booster seat provided gratis by the Academy. Anyone interested in early childhood development may well ask: What was different this time around?

Hold that foot

As was the case last year, Thelma was again entranced, fascinated and inquisitive about everything she saw on stage.

"Are they fighting over it?" she asked during the Act I children's tug-of-war over the precious nutcracker.

"What's that sound?" she asked when she heard a tambourine.

"That's hard to hold your foot while you're dancing," she commented on an extension by Samantha Barczak as Coffee, the Arabian dancer.

Our greatest concern was how Thelma would react to the dreaded giant mice and particularly the mouse king's stabbing death— a concept unknown to her at age three. A year ago she had simply observed, "The mouse fell over!" This time she was a bit sadder but wiser.

Confronting death

Days before last week's performance, you see, she had watched the Mouse King die on TV, and "It made me sad," she told us.

When we arrived in the lobby she wouldn't go near the actor/mouse seated in the vestibule to pose for pictures with kids. When the dead Mouse King was carried offstage during the first act, Thelma asked, "Why are they taking him away?"

"Because he's done his dance," her mother sagely replied.

By intermission Thelma had somehow come to terms with the dead mouse issue: She not only posed with the mouse actor but allowed the mouse to hug her. By Act II she had come full circle, mouse-wise. "I want to marry the mouse," she announced.

As for the Mouse King's onstage demise, she explained that the rodent hadn't died after all. "It's OK," she assured us. "He's out in the lobby."

Throughout the two-hour performance Thelma exhibited no signs of restlessness. Neither did any other kids in the audience, as far as I could tell. Neither did I, for that matter.

I've lost track of how many Nutcrackers I've seen, first with my parents and then with my kids. But seeing this enchanting ballet with a grandchild is like seeing an old and familiar opera with subtitles added for the first time: a whole new ball game.♦

To read Janet Anderson's review of The Nutcracker, click here.
To read responses, click here.
To read Dan Rottenberg's 2012 follow-up, click here.

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