This week I’m in the pit orchestra for a preview of the Joffrey Ballet’s new production of the Nutcracker. We have rehearsals all week, with the first performance of five tonight. All eyes will be on the Joffrey Ballet as they premiere this new version of an old classic, newly set by the world famous Christopher Wheeldon.
Last night I wracked my brain to think when the Nutcracker had become a “thing” in our family. The Brewmaster is in the pit with me tonight as he has been for several years at this time of year, while Ballet Boy already started performances last weekend as a rat, a court attendant and a polar bear in the Houston Ballet’s brand new production. Next week the Brewmaster and I perform a more traditional version with a regional ballet company, the Quad City Ballet in collaboration with Orchestra Iowa.
It’s a completely nutty time of the year for all of us, as we try to pack our normal teaching and class schedules around all of these extra rehearsals and performances. In order to remain sane, I remind myself how magical the Nutcracker is for families all over the USA.
Growing up, the Nutcracker was not a part of our family traditions. We attended Cocoa and Carols, performances of the Messiah and other chorale concerts, but I have no recollection of the Nutcracker. After college I lived in France for 11 years, where the Nutcracker is not quite so important to ballet companies that do not rely on it as their “bread and butter.” In Europe, the arts are more heavily subsidized by government funding and selling out houses becomes secondary to creating new art.
I have seen very few Nutcrackers, in fact, as I’m often in the pit. My first experience was with the old Joffrey production when they brought it to Iowa City in 2003. Although the music was all familiar since songs like “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” and “Nutcracker March” are on the radio a lot, but I hadn’t realized quite how difficult the score was. Almost four year old Ballet Boy was sick and I remember is being in the ER with him because he was having a massive croup attack and was very low oxygen. They gave him steroids and he was up all night, as well as his mama. Playing two shows the next day seemed heroic.
Ballet Boy grew to be a more accomplished dancer, and his home studio, Nolte Academy, put on a wonderfully popular local production. The cast was all kids; teen stars filling very difficult roles that many seasoned pros struggle to perform. Ballet Boy was lucky to be cast as the Nutcracker prince, and then later the cavalier. I was able to play in the orchestra, which was set up in front (not below) the stage, so I could watch. His last performance there was very emotional for me; I cried buckets knowing he was leaving soon for Houston, and this would probably be our last collaboration ever. I was so proud!
Last year in spite of playing many shows on our own, we went to watch the Nolte production (which has delightful and humorous story-telling) and then went down to Houston to watch the last year of the Ben Stevenson production there. They were very different scales–obviously the Houston Ballet is one of the world’s best companies and has a huge budget–but what I took away was the power of dance to transform and transport an audience through the magic of Christmas. Good triumphs over evil, and we are left wondering if the whole thing was a dream or true, just like the after-daze of Christmas.
So, in spite of playing so many shows ourselves, the Brewmaster, my mom, my sister, my nephew and I are all hoofing it down to Houston to see their new production right before Christmas. We can’t wait to see the magic the new Stanton Welch production will bring. If you look closely at this photo, you’ll see Ballet Boy as a court attendant in his funny cone hat of brightly colored macaroons stacked on his head.
Now, let’s go crack some Nuts, folks! Go support your local productions and find some nutty cheer.