How kids see the Pennsylvania Ballet’s ‘The Nutcracker’ (seventh helping)

But why is it called The Nutcracker?'

Seven years ago, I embarked on a journalistic quest to observe how small children (specifically, my Brooklyn grandchildren) develop an appreciation for great art (specifically, Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, as performed each December by the Pennsylvania Ballet). Each subsequent year, notebook in hand, I accompany Thelma and Roscoe to the Academy of Music, hoping to jot down their every utterance and discern some larger psychosocial pattern.

Thelma (left) and Roscoe with an old friend: Are the mice evil? (Photo by Dan Rottenberg.)

When this project began, Thelma Rubin-Rottenberg was an only child, not yet three years old. Now, Thelma and her brother Roscoe are turning ten and eight and attending The Nutcracker for the seventh and fifth time, respectively (having missed last year’s production). Not only are they two years older since their last visit, but with the arrival of Angel Corella as artistic director, the company has undergone major upheavals. Would Thelma and Roscoe notice any difference? Would I notice any difference?

Encounter with death

2010: Thelma, not quite three, was terrified by the giant mouse sitting in the lobby before the performance. She was overwhelmed by the scale of the auditorium 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. (Click here.)

2011: Thelma, nearly four, was again fascinated and inquisitive about everything she saw onstage but troubled by the Mouse King's stabbing death — a concept then unknown to her. (Click here.)

2012: Thelma, then almost five, was joined by Roscoe, then almost three. This time, Thelma demonstrated an increasingly sophisticated appreciation for the music, dancing, and story. Of the overture, she remarked astutely, "It's like you get a taste of all the music." Roscoe didn’t last past intermission, but from his Act I booster seat, 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 such as, "How can I get up there [onstage]?" and "Can I be in the ballet?” (Click here.)

Expanding tree

2013: Thelma, almost six, now assumed the role of an experienced connoisseur. She confidently anticipated the transparent opening curtains, the expanding and shrinking 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 mice and nutcracker men to the realm of dreams.

Roscoe (almost four), noted at the opening, “It’s going to start because the lights are going down.” During the overture, he asked impatiently, “When will the curtain go up?” (Click here.)

2014: On her fifth visit, Thelma — now almost seven and a novice ballet student — shifted her focus from The Nutcracker’s story and music to its technical aspects. Meanwhile, five-year-old Roscoe waited impatiently for familiar moments such as the expanding Christmas tree and harlequins emerging from their boxes, evidence he had been paying attention on previous visits when we thought he was nodding off. (Click here.)

2015: Thelma, astutely deploying my binoculars, figured out how the mice dancers see through their headpieces and noticed that the dancer portraying Mother Ginger was actually a man. Roscoe, not quite six, fell asleep in Act II for the fourth straight year but this time awoke after each number to join in the applause before resuming his doze. (Click here.)

Magician’s spell

2017: “The thing about The Nutcracker,” Thelma observed beforehand, “is nobody talks, but you can tell the story by the way they dance.” That said, both Thelma and Roscoe focused on the flimsiness of the narrative that underlies this cotton-candy confection of music, choreography, and costumery.

“Why is it called The Nutcracker?” she asked toward the conclusion of Act I. “The Nutcracker barely plays a part.” When the Magician arrived to cast his spell on the sleeping Marie, she wondered, “What is the spell doing? Making it magical? I think he cast the spell on the Nutcracker, not the girl.” Roscoe wondered about the point of the battle between the giant mice and nutcracker soldiers. “Are the mice, like, evil?” he asked.

These, I think most observers will agree, are legitimate questions, whatever your age.

Musicians with iPhones

For the first time, Roscoe was fully engaged from start to finish, even asking to change seats with me for a better view. Before the opening curtain, while observing the sculptures on the Academy ceiling, he asked, “What’s with all the naked bodies? Why don’t they have clothes?” As for the death of the Mouse King by a sword plunged into his back — the scene that had once traumatized Thelma — Roscoe immediately noted, “It’s in his arm!”

At intermission, my wife and I took Thelma and Roscoe to the orchestra pit. There they found musicians practicing their parts or studying their sheet music for the second act, but mostly playing with their iPhones. Which prompted this question from Thelma: “Don’t the musicians get tired of playing the same music over and over?”

Timeless appeal

Some observers have faulted this production for playing things too safe: injury-defying flying leaps were scarce this year. But that difference escaped Thelma and Roscoe, not to mention me.

Afterward, I asked the kids if they still felt the same sense of excitement they had at their first Nutcracker. They both answered yes, “but in a different way.” Which pretty much explains the timeless appeal of a work first performed in 1892 and first choreographed by George Balanchine in 1954. As the kids are discovering, there’s something to be said for encountering the same sounds and sights over and over, year after year.

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