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Visions of Sugar Plum Fairies dance in her past

December 30, 2005
by Mary Ellen Hunt

IT'S AN ANNUAL tradition among veteran balletgoers to put on a slightly testy tone when the subject of the "Nutcracker" comes along. "Did you really go again this year?" "Did you skip the Party Scene?" "How many did you wind up seeing this year?"

Well -- yes, no and five.

This year -- from San Jose to the East Bay to San Francisco -- I've heard that overture five times, and watched the Stahlbaum/Tannenbaum family cavort, the Christmas tree grow, and a wide variety of mice on Clara/Marie's trail.

For weeks I've hauled along friends, family, anyone who'd go with me, but strangely, I think the best performance I went to was a Friday matinee at San Francisco Ballet, where I realized that all this time the one thing I'd forgotten to bring was a kid.

Now those who know me might choke out a little whiff of derision -- "You? At a kiddie show, much less liking it?" OK, so maybe I've given the general impression that I would cringe at the idea of spending an afternoon like this, among babbling youngsters decked out in full party regalia, complete with stuffed bear in tow. I should be identifying with their harried adult companions, who are battling through the queue for cookies and standing along the walls looking exhausted as they furtively sip half-pints of milk through a Christmas-red straw.

But instead, the Friday matinee made me feel oddly nostalgic. After all, this is how I first came to know the world of dance, dressed in my party dress, hanging off my Dad's hand as I peered up at the forest of strangers while clutching a newly acquired doll.

Two-inch-tall furry mice were the dolls of choice when I used to go to see the New York City Ballet perform George Balanchine's "Nutcracker." Every year it was a different mouse -- an angel mouse, a ballerina mouse and her cavalier, a Spanish mouse and her cavalier, a Mrs. Stahlbaum mouse, a Mr. Stahlbaum mouse. I won't tell you the embarrassing number of mice that I have today, but there are two for every year that I went to see the "Nutcracker" during my childhood.

When I go to the "Nutcracker" with grown-ups nowadays, the conversation is about grown-up stuff. "Were so-and-so's feet really pointed?" "I can't believe he only did double pirouettes." "Isn't it strange to put fouettes in the choreography right there?" "Well, you know, that whole section is just taken right out of XYZ's version of the ballet."

But when I see the "kiddie matinee," it's completely different. I'm as delighted by the entry of the magic dolls at the party as they are. I feel the childish thrill as the Christmas tree starts its upward trek to the thunderous crashing of the orchestra. I'm even a little misty-eyed when that gorgeous Tchaikovsky music swells just in time to lead Marie into the Land of the Snow. Suddenly, I'm the little kid who wanted desperately to be a bejeweled snowflake flying through the zero-visibility blizzard onstage.

As I was growing up, my Dad -- a widower and single father who wasn't a musician or dancer but was, and remains, an avid appreciator of the arts -- was keen to find things to occupy a lively and inquisitive daughter. And since dance struck a chord -- I think he realized it was a hit when two weeks later I was still twirling around Central Park humming the chorus from the Waltz of the Snowflakes -- he cannily seized the opportunity.

There were the ballet classes, of course, but then he started taking me to Leonard Bernstein's Young People's Concerts. "You know, to be a dancer, you have to know about a lot of different kinds of music." Then there was the lead-in to opera: "I was thinking you might like 'The Tales of Hoffmann,' because, you know, part of it is the same story as the ballet 'Coppelia.'"

And there were always ballets to go see. Aside from the annual "Nutcrackers," he would select bright story-ballets he thought I might like. When I got older, though, I was allowed to pick a few things each season for us to attend. It was, if I do say so, an ingenious move. What kid doesn't want to be consulted for his or her opinion? I would pore over the choices, he'd help me find out more about each one and then make my selection.

Would I like to see the Joffrey Ballet's delightful "Pineapple Poll" or New York City Ballet in "A Midsummer Night's Dream"? Natalia Makarova in "La Bayadere" or Cynthia Gregory in "Swan Lake"? From there, it became more complex. Dad began to work on making my tastes more ecumenical: Shall we check out Martha Graham this time? What about seeing this Pilobolus stuff?

Even now that we live on opposite coasts, our conversations are still likely to begin with a query like "Have you seen Jiri Kylian's new piece yet?" I couldn't have asked for a better entree to a lifelong love for the arts. These days, I watch the kids in the lobby of performances such as "Nutcracker" or "Velveteen Rabbit" spinning around their parents' legs, singing, re-enacting their own versions of the ballet. But best of all, just enjoying it. I can't help but see the start of something big.

This article first appeared in the Contra Costa Times.


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