Pennsylvania Ballet's "Nutcracker': Three generations

To see with the eyes of a child

'The mice have funny shoes on!'
'The mice have funny shoes on!'

At what age should you introduce a child to The Nutcracker? That was the question before my wife and me as we weighed the pros and cons of a first visit to the Academy of Music for our granddaughter, Thelma Rubin-Rottenberg of Brooklyn.

The cons: Thelma is two weeks shy of her third birthday. She's hardly ever watched TV, much less a full-length ballet. And the noon performance we had in mind would break right into the middle of her customary and essential nap time.

The pros: Thelma is precocious, musical and highly articulate. Her vocabulary already includes sophisticated words like "individual," "original" and "seeming." She's a quick study. Why not push her envelope sooner rather than later?

And so we did, doing our best to prep Thelma in advance about the dancing mice and the Christmas tree that expands to the ceiling.

Terrifying mouse

At first, our worst apprehensions seemed confirmed. Thelma was terrified by the human-size mouse sitting in the lobby before the performance to pose for pictures with kids. She was overwhelmed by the scale of the auditorium itself and reluctant to venture too close to the stage. She refused to walk down to the orchestra pit to see the musicians warming up.

But once we got Thelma into her seat and the curtain rose, it was a whole new ball game. Thelma 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.

The best evidence of Thelma's fascination was the running commentary she provided once she accustomed herself to the spectacle:

"There goes the tree!"

"Here come some more mice!"

"The mice have funny shoes on!"

"The mouse fell over!" (A reaction to the Mouse King's stabbing— a concept as yet unknown to Thelma.)

"The whole stage opened up!" (Her reaction when the indoor party of Act I gave way to the snowy outdoor scene just before intermission.)

"The boy ballerina is picking up the girl ballerina!"

So transported was Thelma that we forgot all about her supposedly indispensable afternoon nap. Her mother tells me she was still floating afterward on the Amtrak train back to New York (and even on the Brooklyn-bound subway).

Where's the dancing bear?

Less transported was Thelma's mother— my daughter Julie— who first saw this same Pennsylvania Ballet perform this same Nutcracker at this same Academy when she was about six, in the 1970s. Except that Julie insisted it wasn't the same.

What happened, she asked, to the old man who raised the curtain to open the first act? Where was the dancing bear and the tambourine she remembered in the first-act party scene when she was little?

"All the dancing in the first act has changed," she claimed. "Instead of dancing to some of the most beautiful music, the guests at the party were just walking around. It's as if they're working against the music."

Haze of memory

Julie was on to something: As I learned afterward, the Pennsylvania Ballet has performed George Balanchine's Act II since its first Nutcracker in 1968, but has performed Balanchine's Act I only since 1987.

On the other hand, I can't help thinking of a scene from The Long Grey Line, the 1955 John Ford saga about the 50-year career of the West Point athletic instructor Marty Maher.

Near the close of that film, there's a poignant moment in which Maher (played by Tyrone Power) looks across his living room at his dying wife (Maureen O'Hara). Although she's pale and haggard and wracked with cancer, Maher sees only the beautiful high-spirited redhead he first married as a young man. The memory of that scene never fails to move me to tears.

Not long ago I watched The Long Grey Line for the first time since I was 13. There's no such scene in the film. My imagination apparently outstripped John Ford's.

The older generation

So, what of the oldest generation in this family cohort at the Academy? My wife and I have stopped counting the number of times we've seen this Nutcracker— not only with our own children and grandchildren, but by ourselves, to watch children we've known in the dance corps. The dancing and the spectacle remain exquisite, but the novelty and wonder wore off for me long ago.

We'll never be able to see The Nutcracker through the eyes of a child again, the way Thelma could (and the way I suspect Julie wishes she could). Ultimately I think that's why we took her— because Thelma reminded us of something beautiful that we first grasped a long time ago, and that will be there for the grasping as long as the Pennsylvania Ballet is willing to accommodate us. A comforting thought as we head into a winter almost as cold and dark as those of Tchaikovsky's St. Petersburg.♦

To read responses, click here and here.
To read Dan Rottenberg's 2012 follow-up, click here.

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