The Nutcracker — Let the Holidays Begin!


How to Unpack the Greatness of this Show for Your Family

During the Waltz of the Snowflakes at The Westside Ballet’s production of Tchaivoksky’s The Nutcracker last weekend, I had this thought: the holidays can begin. Now, normally I resist how holiday music starts up before the Thanksgiving roasting pans are stashed. But, it’s impossible to resist Tchaikovsky – especially with a live orchestra and delightful young performers. Not to mention those Snowflakes…

Nutcracker Paul Kolnik

Credit: Paul Kolnik/New York City Ballet

Hearing Tchaikovsky’s score for the first time, at this time of the year, heralds the holidays like nothing else.  The melodies are bright and iconic, the sweep of the elaborate score unparalleled.  It’s one of the few pieces of classical music that is part of everyone’s DNA, but can seem perilously ubiquitous when played too often at the malls and in elevators during the holidays.

That’s what happens to the very best stuff in our culture. It’s gets overused and taken for granted. But, it’s a parent’s job to unpack these cultural icons and establish them in a pure fashion in the minds of our kids.

How should you take on this excellent assignment? Listen to the score in it’s entirety – this is easiest to do by watching the ballet itself — and explain how the musical pieces stitch together to tell a story. Ask the kids which of the pieces they like the best, and why? Can they identify the instruments as they’re being played, by ear? (Here’s a clever “music map” that can help identify instruments in the “March”). Which ones do they remember after they leave the theater?

You can also introduce them through a movie version of the ballet – this is the best we’ve seen. And, this picture book is also lovely. Whether you take in the ballet itself (which is everywhere this weekend) or head to The Walt Disney Concert Hall (where Gustvao Dudamel will be conducting four full evenings the Russian composer’s score next weekend), it’s a pleasure to explore how this particular story became a beloved holiday chestnut.

In order to get my crew to line up for a show, there’s got to be some action on the stage. Which is why a local ballet production fits the bill — one with adorable young dancers for whom the thrill of being on stage is palpable. The true magic of the season is on the faces of the smallest creatures on stage — the little flowers who escape from Mother Ginger’s enormous hoop skirt to flutter around the stage, joyous and cherubic.  There’s nothing sweeter than seeing the littlest tutus in action alongside the accomplished, older performers.

If you’re a tiny ballerina, the lithe quest of the Dew Drop and the assured duet of the Sugar Plum Fairies lay out the promise of growing up, the lure of romantic love in perfectly imagined form. Imagine being six and dreaming of one day dancing one of those roles? Imagine being sixteen and finally getting to dance in the lead role. For the few who make it through those ten years of rigorous training, the rewards are sweet.

The Nutcracker is quite literally a twirl around the globe, and the secret of the ballet’s longevity might be the pure variety of dancing on display in the 2-hour show.  The First Act’s Christmas Party starts with kids trying to behave at a fancy grown-up party when finally something cool happens – Herr Drosselmeyer arrives with The Nutcracker and the party really gets started, dazzling with the upward expansion of the Christmas Tree and climaxing with the battle of the Mouse King.  How can Act Two top that? By transporting Clara to a magical land and showing her (quite literally) a world of dance. The Waltz of the Snowflakes ushers in the wintry mood and works on the very sentimental in the audience by virtue of pure beauty. The Spanish, Russian and Chinese Dances are physical and pure fun, especially for boys who need some nudging to realize that ballet is EXTREMELY athletic. (Who doesn’t remember watching those Russian squats when you little?). The Arabian Dance can be surprisingly sexy, a far cry from Disney’s Princess Jasmine. But there’s nothing better than the Waltz of the Flowers, when the show pulls out all the stops with a whirlwind of petals and arms, colorful costumes and spectacular music. The finale, the Dance of the Sugar-Plum Fairy is the pinnacle of the production, but (for my money) has a hard time matching the pure thrill of the dances that precede it. The formal, final pas de deux returns the audience to a safe place, the myth of love’s fulfillment, and that’s the job of any romance. But it feels just a little too grown up, really, for Clara. That may be the point, but what’s the rush to adulthood? We really want her to fall asleep again dreaming of the flights of the flowers.

In Southern California, it’s particularly difficult to get into a truly snowy mood, and The Nutcracker delivers on Christmas spectacle. But more than anything, it is a thrill to introduce this cultural icon to another generation, to tangibly connect our childhoods with that of our babies, and give them memories to look back upon when they are grown.

Nutcracker Productions for the remainder of 2013:

Watching Dudamel conduct The Nutcracker with the LA Philharmonic  is a lovely way to get in a seasonal mood … And, there are four shows at Walt Disney Concert Hall with the LA Children’s Chorus between Thursday, December 12 and Sunday, December 14 (including a Sunday matinee).

The Marat Daukayev Ballet Theatre  —  Saturday and Sunday shows December 7/8 and 14/15 at the Luckman Theater

Los Angeles Ballet —  Each weekend in December, the company moves to a new venue – from the Alex Theater December 7/8 to the Valley Performing Arts Center December 14/5 , UCLA’s Royce Hall December 21/22 and the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center December 28/20.

Here is a full list of other Nutcracker productions this season.   Our only advice? Go for a performance with a live orchestra. It does make a difference!