31 December 2011

Sugar plums dancing in our heads


I've sadly missed it for this season, but the Nutcracker (particularly the Balanchine version - sorry Boston ...) has always been a personal favorite.  When I think about Christmas, coming close after Jesus in the manger are images of party scenes, battles between mice and toy soldiers, and the Sugar Plum Fairy.

When my brother and I were young, the Nutcracker made my family crazy.  For 4-5 years, we were both in the Nutcracker at the same time and running around to various rehearsals and performances, I as a child dancer and he as a vocalist.  His boys choir would sing the signature "ahh's" during the Snow scene before the end of the first act, and my ballet school trained the children who performed with the Pennsylvania Ballet.

Young kids didn't have a particularly difficult part to play - unless you were Marie, Fritz, or the Nutcracker/Prince - although I loved being on the same stage as some of our ballet heroes, the principals (and now artistic staff) of the company.

There was a distinct hierarchy to the roles one could play, though.  The youngest and smallest were always angels, who came out at the beginning of Act II as a prelude to the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.  The party girls (of the house scenes*) and polichinelles (emerging from the impossibly immense skirt of Mother Ginger) were the most coveted roles.  The rest of us would become toy soldiers and even mice for the battle scene.

At the time I never understood why certain girls - the same girls - always got what seemed to be the "best parts."  Was it their skill level?  Or maybe their body build (preference given to the not-too-tall and slender)?  Or did they have the most connections?  It wasn't clear to a small Chinese girl with what she thought was a too-round face and a too-curved body.  These questions about body image bothered me as a child, but I later came to terms with the fact that I didn't have the build nor the desire to become a ballerina - and so laid aside the discipline of dance for the disciplines of design and music.

But I still had the fun opportunities to perform as an angel, the soldier trumpeter, and then as a soldier wielding a saber.  As an angel, we paid a small price for looking cute.  We wore heavy gold crowns that stayed on only with the help of bobby pins and hoop skirts that restricted our foot movement to small shuffles.  If you took one real step, there was the danger of stepping on your skirt and then falling flat on your face (whoops) - something that did happen many times in the rehearsal studio but fortunately few times actually on stage.

Being a soldier was probably one of the most fun roles.  We got to throw foam cheese blocks at the storming troops of mice, slash fake plastic swords at fat mouse costumes, and eventually be carried off kicking by the mice when the toy soldiers lost the battle.  Our cheeks were emblazoned by bright red circle stickers that sometimes came off in the heat of the tussle.

And although I've moved on from that part of my childhood, I still can't help but play Tchaikovsky's score over and over again for the entire month of December (or longer).  The choreography has faded in my memory - and I've become a bit long-winded in my reminiscence - but the Nutcracker itself never will stop being part of my Christmas.