Balanchine confronts the future

How kids see ‘The Nutcracker’ (eighth helping)

5 minute read
Thelma, Roscoe, and friend: Been there, done that. (Photo by Dan Rottenberg.)
Thelma, Roscoe, and friend: Been there, done that. (Photo by Dan Rottenberg.)

Eight years ago, I began a journalistic quest to observe how small children (specifically, my Brooklyn grandchildren) develop an appreciation for great art — in this case, the George Balanchine choreography of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker, as performed every December by the Pennsylvania Ballet. 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.

When I began this project, Thelma Rubin-Rottenberg was not yet three years old; now Thelma and her brother Roscoe are turning eleven and nine, respectively, and they attended this Nutcracker for the eighth and sixth time (they missed the 2016 production). Not only are they a year older now, but a few weeks earlier they sang in the chorus for The Hard Nut, Mark Morris Dance Group’s cartoon-caricature alternate version. (It has the same Tchaikovsky score, transposed from the Russian 1890s to the swinging American 1970s, with hairy-legged male dancers in tutus blending seamlessly with ballerinas.)

The Pennsylvania Ballet has performed Balanchine’s Nutcracker since 1968 at Philadelphia’s venerated Academy of Music, which was built in 1857 and seats 2,509. But The Hard Nut, now 28 years old, has become something of a fixture as well, at the barely less esteemed Brooklyn Academy of Music, which opened in 1908 and seats 2,983. So unlike their grandparents — who’ve never seen Tchaikovsky’s work performed anywhere but in Philly — Thelma and Roscoe can draw some comparisons.

A scary start

December 2010: Thelma, not quite three, 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, nearly four, was again fascinated and inquisitive about everything she saw on stage but troubled by the Mouse King's stabbing death — a concept then unknown to her.

December 2012: Roscoe, then almost three, joined Thelma, almost five. 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 didn’t last past the intermission, but from his booster seat in Act I 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 like, "How can I get up there [on stage]? Can I be in the ballet?”— questions at least partly answered six years later.

Emerging experts

December 2013: Thelma, almost six, now assumed the role of an experienced connoisseur. She confidently anticipated the transparent opening curtains, the expanding and shrinking 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. Roscoe (almost four), meanwhile, 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 seven 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 dozing.

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. 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 nodding off again.

December 2017: “The thing about The Nutcracker is,” Thelma observed beforehand, “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. When I asked them afterward if they still felt the same sense of excitement as they did at their first Nutcracker, they both answered yes, “but in a different way.”

Why not both?

December 2018: The timeless enchantment of Balanchine’s Nutcracker has 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-blind casting, and Thelma and Roscoe took it that way. To my wife and me, the Pennsylvania Ballet’s dancing seems 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?”

“I want to do The Hard Nut again,” Roscoe elaborated. “It was fun sitting in the green room instead of being an ordinary person down here [in the audience].” He did express some envy of the Philadelphia Boys Choir’s bow at the end of Act I. “They didn’t point us out at The Hard Nut,” he allowed.

So next December, which would they rather attend — the Balanchine Nutcracker in Philly or the Mark Morris Hard Nut in Brooklyn? After a brief pause, they answered: “Both.”

Those are voices of the future that modern ballet companies ignore at their peril.

What, When, Where

The Nutcracker. Choreography by George Balanchine; music by Pyotr I. Tchaikovsky. Pennsylvania Ballet production ended December 31, 2018, at Academy of Music, Broad and Locust Streets, Philadelphia. (215) 893-1999 or

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