Saturday, November 17, 2007

The Nutcrackers

Come November 1, the people in my household undergo a miraculous change. Theo becomes a Prince, Rosie transforms into Fritz, I hail to Marie, Bill to Godfather Drosslemeyer, and Maggie’s doggie features become Mouse King traits. For 2 months, we are a living Nutcracker household.

I have no idea WHY we purchased our first Nutcracker DVD, Theo was 3 and Rosie about 6 months and most decisions from that time period are fuzzy. Anyway, we acquired a copy of the George Balachine and the New York City Ballet's Nutcracker and Theo watched it hundreds of times. He memorized every movement of every dance. He was the Nutcracker Prince (played, gasp, by Maucauly Culkin) for Halloween.

A year later, fearing that he would become bored with the same version over and over, I bought him a copy of the Ballet of the Slovak National Theater Nutcracker, which he proceeded to watch probably 50 times before coming up for air. Titillated by a second version of the Nutcracker, Theo wanted to see more. I wanted him to experience the beauty of live music and the thrill of seeing the dancers on the stage. So we got tickets to the Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Nutcracker. He sat on my lap through the entire performance, and I experienced his thrills through the tremble of his little 4 year old body when soldiers rolled out their cannons, also his complete anguish of living though the lovely (and thus boring) dance of the Snowflakes. We spent most of that Christmas season talking about the differences between Balanchine and Stowell/Sendak’s interpretations of the story.

When our third Nutcracker year rolled around, we were living with a real life ballerina, our new housemate Jana! Having a dancer in our house, one that had participated in the Nutcracker for most all her life, brought a new rule into our lives. No Nutcracker until after Halloween. It just didn’t seem right to subject her to the Sugar Plum Fairy in July. Mid-December, we went to see her dance in ARC Ballet’s "Taste of the Nutcracker". Theo was thrilled with the small scale performance and enjoyed being able to sit on the gymnasium floor right next to where the dancers were. He would not, however, talk to Jana after the performance because she was in costume. The rest of our post-Halloween season was split between careful study of NYCB, PNB, and Slovak versions. Theo stunned me with his own version of the doll-soldier dance, almost perfectly recalling Balanchine’s chorography though his little body could not always mimic as well as his memory.

Until this point, Rosie had been a Nutcracker tagalong, playing nearby the TV while Theo jumped up and down on the couch to various dances, sitting on my lap at the ARC performance, hanging out with Daddy while we went to see PNB. At 2½, Rosie came into her own. She discovered I had the Nutcracker music on CD, and introduced Theo to the joys of dancing around the living room. Soon, I had two sword-wielding, stick horse-riding children propelling wildly through the house for what seemed like hours at a time.

Last year, we added The American Ballet Theater’s Nutcracker to our collection, with Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gelsey Kirkland. The kids only needed to view it a few times to integrate the differences between this and all the others. Theo’s interest in the Nutcracker eased, willing to watch the DVDs and attend the PNB performance, no longer spending every moment of the day as The Prince. Rosie’s first words in the morning, however, became “call me Fritz.” Her adoration for the wild little brother who breaks the Nutcracker in an act of spite entertained us all. Within a week, she had all of 4 the adults in our household trained to begin and end every sentence addressed to her with “Fritz.” “Fritz, will you put on your socks please, Fritz?” garnered all sorts of smiles and cooperation from her that made the game worthwhile.

As the summer air cooled this year, Rosie anticipated the arrival of Nutcracker season. In September she was already asking to get it out. Thankfully our Jana-pity rule allowed me to easily put off getting out the DVDs until November 1. It was hard to tell this year if Rosie was more excited about the fun of Halloween or the joy of the first Nutcracker viewing. Quick agreement was reached about which ballet to begin with – New York City Ballet is always our first. But all this careful study over the years has lead to discriminating tastes. So now our routine also includes careful negotiations of which version to see, with both children reminding each other about the merits of preferred parts of the one they are hoping to see.

Theo still spends parts of his day as the Prince or a Soldier, scouting out empty rooms before I enter to protect me from the Mouse King, though he is more engrossed in comic books than the Land of Sweets. But Rosie has taken on his passions, telling people at the grocery store that her name is Fritz and calling me Marie throughout the course of the day. Our daily discussion center around complex analysis of all things Fritz. Why did he break the Nutcracker? How was he feeling? Maybe he should have taken a nap before the party? Does the Mouse King represent Fritz in Marie’s dream?

I like to think our years of interest and study in the Nutcracker is my children’s first literary experience: exploring different interpretations of a story, discussing characters and their motivations, learned how to compare and contrast many similar works.

In case you’re interested in the Nutcracker, here is our quick rundown of the versions we've seen:

New York City Ballet and George Balanchine By far the children's favorite for the narration and the many child dancers. Adults find Maucauly Culkin's wooden performance wearing after 15 or so viewings. We recommend this as the best way to introduce other children to the Nutcracker.
Ballet of the Slovak National Theater The children enjoy this production as it shows the dancers getting ready for the performance: applying makeup, putting on costumes, helping each other get ready. It has sparked the beginnings of understanding how much work goes into the performance, not just the effort of the dancers, but an entire team of people who create the costumers, the sets and make everything look and move along with the dancers.
Pacific Northwest Ballet While there is no DVD available for this, we do have a copy of the book. Stowell and Sendak team up to create a very different story where Clara and the Prince travel to a Pashima's domain rather than the land of sweets. The changed interpretation is stimulating for the kids. As big Sendak fans, we all enjoy the familiar, fantastical tone of the scenery.
American Ballet Theater As tastes in our household mature, the ABT version is becoming the preferred production. Who can resist the strong leaps of Baryshnikov or the grace of Kirkland? This is the one to watch if you'd like to truly admire the dancing. Also, my children have noted the story of this version to be "nicer." Clara and Fritz behave more as wound up, yet loving siblings that warring parties, and the Nutcracker is broken by a well-meaning but drunk guest rather than by Fritz.

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