Growing up at the ballet

How children see ‘The Nutcracker’ (ninth helping)

5 minute read
Roscoe (left) and Thelma with friend. (Photo: Dan Rottenberg.)
Roscoe (left) and Thelma with friend. (Photo: Dan Rottenberg.)

Nine years ago, I embarked on a long-term journalistic quest to record how small children (specifically, my Brooklyn grandchildren) develop an appreciation for great art—in this case, George Balanchine’s choreography of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, as performed by the Pennsylvania Ballet every December. Each subsequent year, notebook in hand, I have accompanied Thelma and Roscoe to the Academy of Music, jotting down their comments in the hope of discerning some larger psychosocial pattern with the passage of time.

Well, time has indeed passed, and those small children are no longer small. When I began this project, Thelma Rubin-Rottenberg was not yet 3 years old; now Thelma and her brother Roscoe are turning 12 and 10, respectively, and they attended this Nutcracker for the ninth and seventh time (they missed the 2016 production). They’re also much more worldly: they’ve sung in the chorus of The Hard Nut, an alternative Nutcracker performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, which is more than their grandparents can say. Before my very eyes, they’re evolving into adults.

To recap that evolution:

A scary start

December 2010: Thelma was terrified by the giant mouse sitting in the lobby before the performance. The scale of the Academy’s auditorium overwhelmed her, and she was reluctant to venture too close to the stage. But once the curtain rose, the combination of music and dance mesmerized her.

December 2011: Thelma, now nearly 4 years old, 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.

December 2012: Roscoe, just shy of 3 years old, joined Thelma. 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." Roscoe dozed off before intermission, but from his booster seat he patted the arm rest 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 [onstage]? Can I be in the ballet?”

Emerging experts

December 2013: Thelma assumed the role of an experienced connoisseur. She confidently anticipated the transparent opening curtains, the expanding 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. Meanwhile, Roscoe (almost 4) 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?”

December 2014: On her fifth visit, Thelma — now almost 7 and a novice ballet student herself—shifted her focus from The Nutcracker’s story and music to its technical aspects. Five-year-old Roscoe, meanwhile, waited impatiently for familiar moments like the expanding Christmas tree and the harlequins emerging from their boxes—evidence that he had been paying attention on his previous visits when we had thought he was asleep.

December 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. For the fourth straight year, Roscoe fell asleep in Act II, but this time he awoke after each number to join in the applause before nodding off again.

December 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 costumes. When I asked them afterward if they still felt the same sense of excitement as they did at their first Nutcracker, both answered yes, “but in a different way.”

December 2018: The timeless enchantment of Balanchine’s Nutcracker paled in comparison with Mark Morris’s inventive The Hard Nut, at least to Thelma and Roscoe. In the Morris version, the use of male dancers en pointe in previously female roles is no gag—just a demonstration of gender-neutral casting, and Thelma and Roscoe took it that way. To my wife and me, the Pennsylvania Ballet’s dancing seemed sharper and more energetic in the two years since Angel Corella took charge (we especially liked Yuka Iseda and Jermel Johnson as the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier), but these nuances failed to impress our grandkids (although Thelma did note that “The Hard Nut second act doesn’t have the guy who jumps through the hula hoops”—Ashton Roxander in the Nutcracker performance we saw). Even the costumes in The Hard Nut were “way better,” Roscoe insisted—“more detailed.”

Now that Thelma and Roscoe have sung in the Brooklyn chorus for The Hard Nut, they assessed the Philadelphia Boys Choir with newly raised consciousness: “Why is it just a boys’ choir?” Roscoe asked. “Why aren’t there any girls?”

Not an everyday experience

December 2019: Both kids (now almost 12 and 10) have grown more critical and analytical, less awestruck. They did not speak at all during the performance but studied it intensely through a shared set of binoculars. “Does the dancing really carry the story?” Roscoe wondered rhetorically. “Or is it the music, sets, and costumes?”—precisely the opposite of Thelma’s observation two years earlier. This time around, they both noticed that the allegedly expanding Christmas tree was actually two different trees. Thelma remarked that “the Candy Cane guy”—Etienne Diaz in our performance—“does less crazy stuff with the hula hoop than he used to.” Roscoe concluded: “This Nutcracker definitely was less dynamic than previous ones.” The unanswered question: Was this comment a reflection on the production or on Roscoe’s growing erudition?

Afterward, Thelma and Roscoe mused that while they may have outgrown some of Philadelphia’s special children’s attractions, like the Please Touch Museum and the Smith Memorial Playground, The Nutcracker retains its appeal.

“I love this,” Roscoe concluded. “But if I had to see it every night, it might not be so special.” What adult could argue with that?

What, When, Where

The Nutcracker. Choreography by George Balanchine; music by Pyotr I. Tchaikovsky. The Pennsylvania Ballet. Through December 31, 2019 at the Academy of Music, 240 S. Broad Street, Philadelphia. (215) 893-1999 or

The Academy of Music is a wheelchair-accessible venue. For more information about the accessibility of Kimmel campus venues, call Patron Services at (215) 893-1999 / (215) 875-7633 TTY or email [email protected].

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