This month marks the sixth December in my curious annual quest to observe how small children — specifically, my grandchildren — develop an appreciation for great art — specifically, The Nutcracker, as performed each holiday season by the Pennsylvania Ballet. Previously I’ve noted the increasing sophistication with which Thelma Rubin-Rottenberg (now almost eight) and her brother Roscoe (now almost six) experienced this beloved combination of 19th-century music (by Tchaikovsky) and 20th-century choreography (by George Balanchine). Not until this year did it occur to me that the experience itself might change with the passage of time.
That became clear even before the opening curtain. Since the dawn of time (or so it seems), the Pennsylvania Ballet has stationed two dancers — dressed as the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Mouse King — in the Academy of Music lobby to pose for photos with kids in exchange for a donation. The photos were then printed during the performance and left (in a handsome white cardboard folder) for pickup on a lobby table afterward.
This year Thelma arrived determined to pose yet again with the Mouse King, with whom she had previously developed an emotional bond that stretched back as far back as 2011. (For those details, click here.) Roscoe, for his part, didn’t want to pose with anyone: Having been exposed exclusively to digital photography in his short lifetime, he just wanted the novelty of a glossy film photo of himself, alone, encased in that nifty cardboard folder.
How the Mouse King sees
So you can imagine their dismay upon learning that the professional photographer and her printed photos have gone the way of the typewriter and the cassette recorder. These days, apparently, everyone would rather take their own iPhone photos, suitable for instant transmission to seven continents via email, Facebook, and Instagram, and the Pennsylvania Ballet has chosen to accommodate them. What’s more, the Mouse King was nowhere to be seen in the lobby, so Thelma reluctantly joined the long line to pose with the Sugar Plum Fairy. Minutes later, thank goodness, came the announcement she’d been waiting for: “The Mouse King has arrived!” Thelma made a beeline for her rodent friend in time to get her picture taken and pick up a new insight as well.
“Do you know how the mouse king sees?” she asked rhetorically as we headed for our seats. “Through the holes in his nose!” When I expressed skepticism, Thelma insisted: “I saw his face through the holes— and if I can see him, he can see me!” This exchange escalated to a more serious discussion as to whether truly great ballet dancers can perform their roles with their eyes shut (I said no, Thelma said yes).
One shoe off . . .
Roscoe, now attending his fourth Nutcracker and just learning to read, asked, “What does that say up top?,” referring to the words “Nutcracker House” atop the set. He confidently anticipated the Act I expansion of the Christmas tree as well as the arrival of the Philadelphia Boys Choir, just as Thelma had done two winters ago when she was the same age Roscoe is now. During an entr’acte shortly before the Christmas tree expansion, Roscoe remarked, “I think they’re moving that tree and getting a taller one.” (Not so, but give him credit for trying to figure it out.) When Act II opened with the Russian Angels — ”the little girls who move like they’re on wheels,” as Thelma described them — Roscoe whispered, “I love this part.” In this scene as in others, the fact that both of them knew what was coming did not diminish their pleasure and may even have enhanced it.
For the second straight year, Thelma’s astute deployment of my binoculars enabled her to spot things that most of the audience may have missed. In the first act, Claire Smith as the child protagonist Marie awoke from her bed with only one of her slippers; when the bed slid off backstage, Smith had to perform the remainder of the act with one shoe. At intermission, Thelma predicted, correctly, “I’ll bet she’ll have her slipper back this act.”
‘That’s a man!’
During the ensemble numbers in the second act, Thelma took the binoculars again, saying, “I’m going to focus on one of them,” thereby furnishing a personal spotlight to some previous anonymous company member. When Mother Ginger appeared with her Polichinelles under her ludicrously gigantic hoop skirt, Thelma — again utilizing the binoculars — announced, “That’s a man!” (Correct again: Mother Ginger was Edward Barnes.)
Faithful readers of this series may recall that Roscoe fell asleep during each of his previous three Nutcrackers. I wish I could report that he made it to the finish line on this fourth visit, but midway through Act II he nodded off again. However, unlike 2014, when he remained sound asleep 15 minutes after the final curtain, this time Roscoe awoke after each number to join in the applause before resuming his doze. Progress, surely.
To read a summary of the previous installments in this series and find links to the earlier installments, click here.