Precisely how do young children develop an appreciation for great art?
That was the process I hoped to observe two years ago when my wife and I first took our granddaughter, Thelma Rubin-Rottenberg of Brooklyn, to the Pennsylvania Ballet's performance of The Nutcracker.
When you think about it, The Nutcracker provides a unique laboratory for my experiment. Few other performance works recur predictably on an annual basis while also appealing equally to small children and superannuated adults. If you want to measure someone's reaction to a work of art from small childhood to old age, The Nutcracker is your best bet.
Thelma was not quite three when she saw her first Nutcracker. (To read that account, click here). And with that experience as our base line, we brought her back last December (click here) and again this month, each time taking copious notes of her reactions.
When to applaud?
By now Thelma is almost five, and this month our experiment was enhanced by the added presence of Thelma's younger brother, Roscoe, who is not quite three and was experiencing his first Nutcracker.
So, what has changed? And what has remained the same?
Roscoe, like his older sister, was mesmerized both by the ballet and the Academy of Music, whose elegance we Philadelphians tend to take for granted. Before the performance he asked impatiently, "When will the curtain open?" When conductor Salvatore Scarpa ascended unseen to his pit podium, Roscoe applauded because he heard everyone else applauding. That is, to some extent he learned to respond by being part of an older audience and imitating the responses of those around him.
When the curtain finally opened, only to reveal another curtain— an image of the "Nutcracker House"— Roscoe asked, logically if impatiently, "Where are the ballerinas?"
When the dancing finally began, Roscoe's eyes were riveted on the stage. From his booster seat, he patted the armrest in time to the music. When the men on stage kissed the women's hands, Roscoe kissed his own hand.
Two years ago we had expected to take Thelma home at intermission for her nap, but on her insistence she remained for Act II with the same rapt attention. Roscoe, by contrast, didn't last beyond the intermission. But as he departed, he posed these questions to his mother:
"How can I get up there (on stage)? Can I be in the ballet? Would I have to have special shoes?"
Suffice it to say that some important seeds seem to have been planted.
Angels on wheels
As for Thelma— two years ago she was overwhelmed by the scale of the auditorium and reluctant to venture too close to the stage. She refused to walk down to the orchestra pit to watch the musicians warming up.
She's still unwilling to venture near the pit, but this time she 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." As for the pit musicians, "They have to play really loud so everyone can hear them."
Of the angels in long gowns who open Act II, she observed, "They look like they're on wheels"— precisely the intended effect. As for the meaning of the Act II travelogue through the Land of Sweets, Thelma wondered, "Is this all in Clara's dream?" Later she noted, "It can't be Clara's dream, because there's Clara."
It's tempting to suggest that Thelma will have the story figured out within a few years, although I must confess that I long ago gave up trying to figure out what the hell's happening on stage.
The most dramatic transformation over the past two years concerned Thelma's complicated love-hate relationship with the Mouse King. Two years ago she was terrified by the human-size mouse sitting in the lobby before the performance to pose for photos with kids. The Mouse King's onstage death— a concept unknown to her at age three— elicited only her observation that "The mouse fell over!"
Last year, she somehow came to terms with the dead mouse issue, explaining that the rodent hadn't died after all: "It's OK— he's out in the lobby!" At intermission she not only posed with the costumed mouse but also allowed the mouse to hug her. By Act II she announced, "I want to marry the mouse."
This time we found that Thelma's passion for her putative life partner was no passing fancy. "Where is the King Mouse?" she asked, midway through Act I. She placed a positive spin on the death of the King Mouse at the hands of the Nutcracker King: "The Nutcracker is the best king because he saved the girl by cutting the mouse."
At intermission she posed with the mouse king again, and this time got his autograph, to boot. The following morning she remarked, "I wish I were with the Mouse King again." As Humphrey Bogart said to Claude Rains in Casablanca, this could be the start of a beautiful friendship.