slipper topples mouse king, details at 11

12/21/09

I’m with Alastair Macaulay – people who hate “The Nutcracker” have forgotten what it is, and I would add they’ve forgotten what makes this exact time of year so scary and wonderful in the first place. It’d be one thing if “The Nutcracker” sucked, but the music is absolutely transcendent – how can you possibly get through the Arabian Dance without your mind drifting back two thousand years? What part of you doesn’t feel joy during the Trepak?

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before the performance at Lincoln Center

The Balanchine production of “The Nutcracker” has become a yearly pilgrimage for us, and I’m not just going so they can afford to do avant garde work in the summer; I go because to see the ballet is to see through the eyes of Lucy – a girl’s fever dream, the excitement of Christmas, a favorite toy, the overwhelming longing for innocent love, and a shitload of sugar sweets. It even closes mid-reverie, with the two kids flying into the ether, a permanently drawn midnight that never quite ends.

It’s a fitting metaphor for tonight, the longest, darkest night of the year. As I lay in bed, the outside temperature monitor reads 9 degrees, and the heaters in this old house can barely keep up. My brother Steve, always one to dabble in unintentional irony, lies in the room above us and has set his sleep machine to “Mid-Summer’s Night”, so I’m also hearing the crickets and distant bullfrogs of a blisteringly hot August evening.

Everything about this time of year is state-dependent; you will only hear these carols for these few weeks, you will only see the Marzipan dancers toe across the stage for a few days. We need this, the longest night of the year, in order to feel the inexorable swing back to life – its dearth of energy gives us energy, its bleak nothingness gives us meaning.

It’s at this precise moment that we’re all back to being kids, with the ghostly apparatus holding the earth as far away from light as possible, a dream that seems to go on a little too long, giving us fear laced with excitement.

I walked into the blizzard on Saturday night, and I’d forgotten that these are yellow-orange affairs in Brooklyn. The streetlights reflect all their light around and back down, churning the streets into an amber swirl. I was hiking into a 40-mph headwind, needles of ice going straight into my eyes. As my feet numbed into the 18 inches of snow, I thought: I need this. I need to be tested. It’s not supposed to be easy.

And that, to me, is what Christmas is at the core: a story about a couple about to give birth, met with resistance at every turn, and then finally working it out as best they could. We travel and prepare and cook and come together at the very moment when all of these things are the most difficult. We need this. We need to be tested. We need to come out on the other side and appreciate each day lasting two minutes longer than the one before until they luxuriate into the mist of crickets and distant bullfrogs.

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what’s better than being ambushed by Lucy, Hank and Polly on a winter morn? Happy Holidays and see you next week!

0 thoughts on “slipper topples mouse king, details at 11

  1. Anne

    Beautiful, Ian.
    My daughter and I used to go to our city’s production (quite grand) of “The Nutcracker” every December. The first time I saw it after decades away from the ballet, I began to cry: I had never before, as a much younger woman, realized how much of the story is a coming-of-age tale about Clara. The Prince ushers her into lovely adolescence, away from the raucus play of siblings and guests on Christmas Eve. It’s like watching a beautiful flower open up, and indeed the Waltz in the 2nd half is a literal depiction of her flowering.
    OK, that’s my sappy take on it.
    As for my take on what Christmas is all about, it’s this: http://annenotations.blogspot.com/2009/12/meaning-to-me-of-christmas.html

    Reply
  2. Neva

    I agree with you completely.
    You are basically saying (but in an much more entertaining way) what does not kill you makes you stronger and I, although it doesn’t help to hear it at the time of the struggle, do believe that is true.
    Having just lived through a HORRIBLE family GI bug that caused me to faint in my own kitchen I can say that we are all just so grateful to be walking upright, eating and feeling alive this Christmas. Without the sickness we never would have seen it that way!
    All the best to you and yours this holiday season Ian and all my xtcian buddies!

    Reply
  3. herman

    I don’t hate the Nutcracker, I love it. I have seen dozens of performances. However it is not good that virtually every American ballet company, large and small, feels compelled to do the Nutcracker every single December.
    Your remark that the NYCB can do the “avant garde work in the summer” if they must is proof of what happens under this compulsion. The NYCB by and large does not perform “avant garde work.” They are the Balanchine company and if they program new work it’s usually well in the neo-classical mode. If all ballet is judged against the Nutcracker (50 % running around and 25 % syage magic and 25 % actual virtuoso ballet) then virtually everything will be deemed elitist avant garde stuff, which it is not.
    So that’s the damage done among the audience.
    And then there’s the damage among the dancers who have to do this grind every year. It may be fun at the NYCB, which has the highest level and is closest to the source; but for dancers in other American compnaies it is not such fun.
    Even in Moscow and in St Petersburg, where the Nutcracker started, over a century ago, there is not this kind of faux tradition. They do Nutcracker nights, but they do other shows as well. And in Western Europe most companies do a Nutcracker program every two or three years. Other ballets, such as Ashton’s Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty, are just as exciting to see during the holiday season. There is no need whatsoever for this gruelling monoculture.

    Reply
  4. emma

    While we didn’t go see a live performance of the Nutcracker, I did take my kids to see a movie of the Nutcracker performed in St. Petersburg, as Herman mentions above. This version seemed much darker to me and had entirely new scenes it from the “Americanized” version that I have always known and loved.
    The godfather was like a hunchbacked vampire. One of the candy dances was a snake coming out of the Indian baskets (and she was my favorite part of the candy dances – she was amazing). The chidren who came out of Mother Ginger’s skirt were bizarre. Not only was Fritz mean to Clara in the first act, but her parents were too.
    It was good to see a different take on the story that I love so much (of course, the music didn’t change and the music is simply magical to me).
    I think I will be glad to see the Nutcracker that I am used to again next year.

    Reply

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