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I remember the tree. When you're five years old, a tree that has real pine needles and grows to be 30 feet tall before your eyes is magic, a window onto another world. That tree guarded the world of The Nutcracker, and in my fifth Christmas season, my parent gave me a passport into this land--a ticket to New York's Metropolitan ballet company production of the classic. For five years I returned, savoring every step of the experience from the glint of the gilded chandeliers to the hush of a carpet against Mary-Janed feet.
But when I turned 12, the magic failed. Peter Tchaikovsky's score failed to captivate--I found musical intoxication impossible without a beat--and sitting in the audience, I felt more like a babysitter than a dance afficianado. Eight years passed since I had last seen the curtain rise on a snowy night in Nuremburg and watched a petticoated-child journey through the land of the Sugar Plum Fairy. And suddenly, this Christmas I found myself listening to Tchaikovsky's tale and thinking of how long it had been since dolls and tutus. I wanted to prove to myself that magic is created by lights and stage mechanics. So one night this week, I went back to see the tree.
The rain was sharp and relentless, and I almost decided not to go. Magic cannot return when your shoes are soaked. I had left the Mary Janes and holiday dress at home, in the photo album. I came in jeans and a casual sweater, but on my ears, I wore pearl earings; some habits are hard to break. I thought it would be different; in fact, I hoped it would be different. The culture of the holiday classic seemed somehow associated with graham crackers, Chutes and Ladders, and the trappings of childhood you don't retain. The little girl who had seen her first performance of The Nutcracker had been left behind in a flurry of cynicism and years. As I entered the Wang Center, I thought to myself how sexist the once-favorite fairy tale would seem, how archaic, how stupid.
But once I entered the theater, I forgot all this. Ticket clenched in my hand as I poked it out at the usher, I felt the once-familiar tremor of seeing a show. Beneath the domed murals of the main hall, people sipped champagne from slender glasses, and children were seen--not heard. Grandmothers' wrinkled hands locked with their grandchildren's small, pink fingers. Inside the theater was the matinee atmosphere I associated with The Nutcracker. Adults called across seats to one another, and children skipped up and down the aisles in a rush of anticipation.
Viewing the orchestra pit had always been a preview to the main show. The smooth screech of a violin tuning up, the shrill whistle of the flute called me to the edge of the stage. I slid between a girl cladin a plaid dress with a big bow at the neck and a young couple dressed in formal wear. The yellowed, dried-out score lay open on the conductor's podium--"Peter Ilyitch Tchaikovsky" it read in spidery-flowing script at the top.
The young couple smiled and waved at the conductor, returning to their seats to socialize. The little girl on my other side was still hanging onto the ledge which overlooked the orchestra. An elderly violinist looked up, saw the little girl, and waved her bow ever so slightly. She then looked at my friend and me, her face blank. We returned to our seats.
The room went gray; I blinked, and it was black. The notes gathered and transformed into the familiar overture. The curtain hung heavy. And then, just as the little girl behind me asked her mother, "Mommy, is it starting yet?" the curtain lifted. Large flakes of snow sunk to the stage where a chestnut seller, the epitome of a Victorian Christmas, was hawking his wares. Families and children paraded across the stage into the wings. The lights did not twinkle gold against soft blue-gray; the stage was just a stage, and all the dancers were players on it. The tree was nowhere to be seen.
The scenery rose up and revealed another set, the inside of the Silberius's house where son Fritz and daughter Clara were bobbing ridiculously in front of the key hole. Back and forth, back and forth, back and forth; the music was unfamiliar and still no tree.
Another set peeled back to reveal the Silberius family's opulent living room, and there was the tree--with huge felt leaves, looking like something we made in first grade and definitely not from a forest. My friend turned to me and whispered, "Pretty tacky."
The scene continued and seemed more like a Disney movie than a ballet. Clara acted like a petulent, spoiled brat. Her brother Fritz was even worse. The party--which I had always remembered as the height of elegance and high society--denigrated into a kindergarten dance festival. And over it all, the tree watched--chunky leaves and plastic ornaments.
But then, Dr. Drosselmeyer, the half-crazy inventor scientist who gives Clara the gift of the eponymous Nutcracker, entered. The clock went spinning 'round, lights flashed, time was transformed, and so was the show.
Drosselmeyer displayed for the company two life-size wind-up "dolls," which clicked across the stage. He presented Clara with The Nutcracker, Fritz obligingly broke it, and the party wound to a close. The adults went to bed, and the real Nutcracker--the one I had remembered--started. Once upon a time...Clara came downstairs in her filmy princess nightgown to check on her beloved broken gift.
The room grew larger, and with it the tree and my eyes. The mad doctor returned and covered the nutcracker with his cape. Boom, flash, I jumped inadvertently in my seat, and with the swirl of Drosselmeyer's cape, the nutcracker was real. And so was the magic; it was back. The battle with the mice started: squeak, bang, squeak, bang, and was over, sooner than I had thought. The mouse king writhed in simulated agony, pumped his feet down to the ground, waved at the audience, and the good guys had won.
Behind, a distinct, thin voice said, "Mommy is it over already?" But the scene was already shifting--snow returned, but this time it was graceful and slight. The Snow Queen and King entered the set, drawn by a sleigh with 12 reindeer. Some leaps and jumps later, Clara and the Nutcracker/Prince arrived. They were no longer the focus, however. They were the dream.
Every little girl in the audience becomes Clara and every little boy entertains princely notions. A journey through a winter dream world lies at the heart of every Christmas season--white wonder and warm beyond. The plot was laid and the rest was a travel log, a sight-seeing tour through the land of magic. Adulthood has no place here; common-sense is unnecessary baggage.
You say to yourself fairy tales have no pertinence to real life, your dreams are created of different stuff. You want to believe that life in a fairy world has no appeal, but underneath, the draw is there. Complex decisions easily give way to simplistic adventures. Responsibility wanes before life according to script. The familiarity of The Nutcracker adds to its charm; you know what happens, and you know to what tune it will happen.
Reason disappears in the face of magic. You no longer say, "It can't really be happening this way," you wish it were happening this way to you.
Intermission came and with it, the lights. But the magic lingered. On the other side of the theater, a little girl pranced around under the area created by an arch. She twirled three times, calling to her mother, "Watch me, watch me." Her blond hair flopped as she bounced up in a mock pirouette. She spun again, playing to her now growing audience. She couldn't have been more than four, but she had fallen under the spell.
Throughout the audience, it seemed, little boys and girls were asking their parents for ballet lessons. They wanted tickets to the stage; they wanted to live the dream, be the dream.
The orchestra started again before the lights went down and the crowd immediately fell quiet. The curtain rose on ethereal angels with silver lyres, that looked like K-Mart specials. Then the angels floated off stage (and with them the dry ice that had provided a Vegas air to the scene), and our hero and heroine returned--in a balloon.
The second act of The Nutcracker is when the plot ends, and the dancing begins. Dance becomes dream, a foreign country captured in movement. The prince/nutcracker relays his fight with the mice to his subjects. And then, his candy subjects return one by one to perform for Clara in gratitude for helping to save him.
First coffee--in the form of Spanish dancers, castanets in hand--and then tea--sensuous gymnasts whose physical stunts amaze. Cossack dancers kick and flip over the stage. Chinese dancers come with small attendants who wave long, sinuous orange silk banners. Tutued marzipan with silly caps and then roses, with skirts of petals.
And of course, Mother Ginger with her many toddlers sheltered under the breadth of her skirt. The under-two-feeters ran around the playgroundstage and paused to dance. Clap, turn backs to one another, and bump. Clap and bump.
The final act had always been the most boring, with the best ballet. And so it was tonight. The dancing was terrific, but the scene too adult, with few fairy elements. The little girl behind me agreed. When the male lead came out for his second solo performance, the little girl said quite audibly, "Again?" Her mother replied, "He's going to do some leaps now."
He did, but leaps are not what The Nutcracker is about, and the little girl behind me knew that, as did every other child in the audience. During the last scene, the children in the audience start to drop off to sleep so that when the show is over and they wake up, the performance seems like little more than a dream. That is what The Nutcracker is all about.
When the lights came on, I looked at my watch. I wasn't surprised to see it had stopped five minutes before the show began.
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