When I was growing up, one of our Christmastime traditions was to get out the Tchaikovsky record and dance around the house to The Nutcracker Suite. The needle on our record player would skip any time we jumped on the floor, so you can imagine the scratches this record accumulated after repeated exposure to our synchronized "Russian Dance" jumps. PBS used to broadcast the Baryshnikov version on Christmas Eve, and my sisters and I watched it (while dancing) every year. Then one year, my dad took me to see a production of The Nutcracker while we were living in Wisconsin. I don’t know if it was a professional company — it may have been a performance at a community college, for all I know. But we had to drive a long distance in our VW van to get there. I remember sitting close enough to the stage to see the dancers’ shoes and I remember how vivid the costumes were for the Waltz of the Flowers. I thought it was one of the most amazing things I'd ever seen. Needless to say, I have a strong connection to The Nutcracker.
Years later, I learned that my dad had pawned most of his coin collection in order to take me. I was shocked about this revelation and it still induces many emotional responses: We were really that poor? He was willing to pawn something he spent years collecting? For me?
So this year, to jump-start that crazy build up to Christmas, I showed it to Penny. I checked out my old favorite from the library — the Baryshnikov version, which is the One True Version, and brought it home. And she was enthralled. That was the ultimate litmus test; I decided that if she could sit through it at home, then maybe she was ready to see the real thing. The story has everything — action, adventure, whimsy. A mysterious godfather, wind-up life-sized toys! A mouse king! The Nutcracker turns into a prince! And Clara saves him!
Ballet West does an annual production of The Nutcracker and I wanted desperately to go. But the website said that the recommended age was 6 years old and I was worried that taking Penny might be a bad idea. What if she freaked out? What if she wouldn't stay in her seat? What if she shouted through the whole thing: “MAMA! IS THAT CLARA? MAMA! IS THAT THE MOUSE KING?” What if we got kicked out?
But we took a gamble and went for it anyway. I splurged on tickets and bought one for Grandma too. In the days leading up to the show, I reviewed the rules of the theater with Penny: You have to stay in your seat. You can’t talk, you can only whisper. I felt like I was being harsh, but I wanted the rules to be well established. And it worked. Penny was marvelous even though she didn't feel that well the night of the performance.
Capitol Theatre is gorgeous. The seats are covered in dark red velvet. There's an an enormous chandelier and the ceiling is decorated in gold leaf detail. And Ballet West's production was truly amazing. The costumes were brilliant, the music was phenomenal. I was overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of it all and had an unexpected emotional experience. My eyes watered multiple times, especially during the Waltz of the Snowflakes. As I sat holding Penny's hand under the gilded ceiling, I thought about my dad, and of the things we did together as a family to expand our minds. He taught us that stuff is just stuff; that doing things together is what's important.
Naturally, this Christmas was rather Nutcracker-themed. We bought Penny her own copy of Baryshnikov's Nutcracker, so I can stop racking up late fees at the library. I found an excellent collection of paper dolls that you can punch out and put on stage to reenact the story. And one of our friends gave Penny a cupcake set with Nutcracker liners and cupcake toppers. We had so much fun this Christmas. I can't wait for next year, so we can go again and establish another tradition.