Five Decembers have passed since I embarked on a bizarre once-a-year quest to observe how children develop an appreciation for great art. The specific work was the Pennsylvania Ballet's annual performance of The Nutcracker, and the guinea pigs were my own very young and very precocious grandchildren from Brooklyn, Thelma Rubin-Rottenberg (now almost seven) and her brother Roscoe (now almost five).
When they returned to the Academy of Music once again last week — Thelma for the fifth time and Roscoe for the third — I again accompanied them with notepad in hand, ready to jot down their every utterance, the better to discern some larger psycho-social pattern. And by golly, I do believe such a pattern is emerging.
But first, the story so far:
2010: Thelma, not quite three, was terrified by the human-sized mouse sitting in the lobby before the performance. She was overwhelmed by the scale of the auditorium itself and reluctant to venture too close to the stage. But once 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, and she provided a running commentary once she accustomed herself to the spectacle. (Click here.)
2011: Thelma, nearly four, was again fascinated and inquisitive about everything she saw on stage but troubled by the Mouse King's stabbing death — a concept yet unknown to her. By the final curtain, though, she had somehow come to terms with the dead rodent issue: "It's OK,” she reasoned. "He's out in the lobby." (Click here.)
Death in battle
2012: Thelma, then almost five, was joined by her younger brother Roscoe, then almost three. This time Thelma demonstrated an increasingly sophisticated appreciation for the music, the dancing, and the story. Of the overture, she remarked astutely, "It's like you get a taste of all the music." The Act II overture, she remarked, is "calming." Roscoe didn’t last past the intermission, but from his booster seat in Act I he patted the armrest in time to the music, kissed his own hand when the men onstage kissed the women's hands, and asked questions like, "How can I get up there (on stage)? Can I be in the ballet? Would I have to have special shoes?” (Click here.)
2013: Thelma, almost six, now assumed the role of an experienced connoisseur. She confidently anticipated the transparent opening curtains, the expanding and shrinking of the Christmas tree, the prospect that “Those toys we see will become real” and the appearance of the Philadelphia Boys Choir (“the people who sing, ‘Ah-Ah-Ah’”). She shrewdly consigned the fatal battle between the mice and the nutcracker men to the realm of dreams. Roscoe (almost four), meanwhile, noted at the opening that “It’s going to start because the lights are going down.” During the overture, he asked impatiently, “When will the curtain go up?” Watching the second act for the first time, he asked, “Why are there candy canes?” and remarked that “It gets dark when the belly dancer comes, right?” (Click here.)
Ballet teacher’s advice
2014: On her fifth visit, Thelma, now almost seven and a novice ballet student herself, shifted her focus from the Nutcracker’s story and music to its technical aspects. The Angels who open Act II create the illusion of moving on wheels, she explained, because “They walk really fast and you can barely see their feet” (which were covered by long skirts). Thelma borrowed my binoculars twice, for close-up looks at the bells on the fingers of the Arabian dancer “Coffee” (Lauren Fadeley) and the flutes played by the five Marzipan shepherdesses. The appearance of a dozen dancing Dewdrop Flowers near the end of Act II prompted Thelma to observe, “I think some of those women were the Sugarplum Fairies in Act I” — and she was right: My post-performance check of the program revealed that six of the Dewdrop Flowers also appeared in the Act I finale (technically, not as Sugarplum Fairies but as Snowflakes). Thelma had paid closer attention than I had.
During the Act II finale, when the Sugarplum Fairy (Evelyn Kocak) and her Cavalier (Ian Hussey) spun dizzyingly across the stage, Thelma explained, “My ballet teacher told me that if you start in third position, you’ll be able to spin for that long.” When I gasped in awe at the gracefulness of Kocak’s mid-air leaps into Hussey’s arms, Thelma replied, “Well, he and she are probably not 72” — a not-so-subtle dig at her grandpa if ever I’ve heard one.
Incidentally, Thelma is now a connoisseur of jokes, and for this occasion she created one of her own:
Question: What’s a duck’s favorite ballet? Answer: The Nutquacker.
Five-year-old Roscoe, meanwhile, waited impatiently for the familiar signposts of his two previous visits. “I don’t see anything yet,” he said, echoing his complaint of the previous year after the overture began but the curtain hadn’t yet risen. Several times he asked, “Is the tree going to grow right now?” and “Is this the part where they jump out of boxes?” and “Is this her dream?” and “Which one is the mouse king?” — all evidence that he had been paying attention on his previous visits (when we had thought he was beginning to nod off). When the Christmas tree expanded, he exclaimed, “It’s growing!” Then he asked, “Is it going to shrink now?” And then he exclaimed, “It’s shrinking!”
For the third time, Roscoe failed to last to the finish. This time, he fell asleep midway through Act II and was sound asleep when the final curtain came down. When we woke him in the empty auditorium some 15 minutes later, he inquired, “Is it over?” Maybe next year he’ll see it all the way through.
To be continued, 12 months hence.