As appeared in Newsweek. 12/13/2004, Vol. 144 Issue 24, p15-15.
Music triggers memories, some sweeter than others. For most people, the Tchaikovsky score of "The Nutcracker Suite" evokes warm images of holidays and loved ones, of dressing up and attending a performance of the ballet, of being entertained and delighted. The giddiness, the excitement and the swirls of color it evokes seem to echo the holiday's many indulgences.
But as someone who had to hear the two acts every day--sometimes twice a day if there was a matinee--for weeks on end, year after year, I've come to dread the cloying Suite. I danced in George Balanchine's "The Nutcracker" for 14 years, first as a child and then as an adult. At some point during those 700 performances, I stopped hearing the same music that everyone in the audience heard. After I'd had to churn out charm regardless of injury, illness or holiday blues, the sounds of "The Nutcracker" just stopped giving me the happies.
Oh, I am well aware that I was blessed to have been in the sweetest Nut of all, the original with the growing tree and the gliding ballerina, special effects from half a century ago. As an elite dance student, I had many roles to fill: the Party Scene, Polchinelles, Angels, Candy Cane. A 10-year-old couldn't design a more magical life--prance with your friends across a major New York stage in a lavish costume, wear makeup, skip school and get paid! Just ignore the battalion of moms in the basement, doomed to spend dozens of holiday evenings knitting and chatting to pass the time.
An invitation to join a professional dance company is an honor, but as with any organization, a hierarchy exists. My first adult role was Grandmother in the Party Scene of the first act. The Grandfather I was paired with was Misha Arshansky, a pal of Balanchine's. I would be prepped for our solemn entrance with penciled age lines, a gray wig and a dowdy lace shawl. Then we would shuffle and hunch through the frolicking kids until I made my exit, and had exactly 18 minutes to transform myself into one of the shimmering Snowflakes. I'd throw off the wig, wipe away my "wrinkles," get my pointe shoes on and my tulle skirt in place and return to the wings in time to dance through the rising drifts of confetti snow. Onstage, I'd keep my eyes squinty and my mouth closed. The stuff was coated with some fireproof material, and if a piece got lodged in your throat, it tasted awful and you couldn't cough to get rid of it. Ballet rule No. 1: music from the pit, silence from the stage.
Venturing out of the rarefied air of the theater didn't offer us dancers an escape from "The Nutcracker." In between rehearsals and performances, we'd throw scarves over our lacquered "bunheads," leave on our garish stage makeup to save time and grab cabs to some overcrowded department stores to get our holiday shopping done. Which music do you think accompanied the harrying experience? Whether we were sitting in traffic, waiting in long lines or being jostled by crowds, the usual favorites--Arabian Dance, Russian Dance, the sweetest of sweet Marzipan Dance--were playing in the background. What was even more maddening was hearing people hum and whistle along to those hackneyed refrains. Sure, they hadn't just peeled off a sweaty Waltz of the Flowers costume for the sixth time that week.
Not all my former colleagues might agree. Soloists usually appeared only a few times a week. But as a corps member, I was part of the backbone, the moving scenery that framed the production. We did our jobs well, but we all looked forward to Mondays, when the theater was dark. We could catch up on sleep, get needed massages and take care of mundane chores like dragging a week's worth of clothes to the laundromat and paying our bills (yes, even Snowflakes need heat).
So with the arrival of crisp air and fat catalogs, I brace myself again for the sounds of Christmas. I still like "The Little Drummer Boy" and will join my family in a rousing round or two of "The Twelve Days of Christmas." I'll happily plan an afternoon around a broadcast of Handel's "Messiah." But don't ask me to enjoy two hours of "The Nutcracker."
That's a ritual reserved for the little ones lucky enough to see the show for the first time. They'll dress up in special holiday clothes and shiny shoes that make them walk funny, and their parents will drive, sometimes for hours, to a theater where every dream and nightmare a child can conjure will be staged, larger than life. There is the kindly old uncle Drosselmeyer, as well as menacing mice, dancing dolls and heroic toy soldiers. Best of all is the Land of Sweets, with its swirling dewdrops, candy canes and sugarplums. This is the stuff of childhood. I should know. I, too, was once very young, and my dream did indeed come true.
By Viki Bromberg-Psihoyos
Bromberg-Psihoyos lives in Boulder, Colo.