05 December 2019

The Nutcracker


by Eve Fisher

Thanksgiving week was a humdinger up here in South Dakota.  It snowed every day.  Along with the occasional freezing rain and ice.  Plus there were the usual hazards associated with Thanksgiving.  I, for one, stay away from all Black Friday events, because I hate crowds, malls, and crazed people in search of something that's so much of a super-bargain that they are willing to risk trampling and maiming to get it.  And the idea that now stores are open Thursday afternoon, so that people go out immediately after Thanksgiving Dinner, belching turkey, stuffing, and pumpkin pie, to find their bliss only makes me lock all the doors and pray that the Monsters don't come down Maple Street.

Instead, on Black Friday I went to The Nutcracker.  Now, I know the music by heart, because I took ballet lessons as a child, where I was told, mercifully early, that I would never have the "line" for ballet.  ("Line" is code for "thin.")

I also worked as an administrator for a couple of ballet companies on the East Coast, and, as everyone knows, The Nutcracker is THE fundraiser, so the rehearsals, with music, start in September.  The administrative office is never far from the rehearsal studio(s).  By first night, the opening bars of "The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" were enough to make us all break out in hives.  But enough time has passed so that I have recovered, and can now go see my godchild's children - one of them was a purple butterfly - without having to take Benadryl.  I had a lovely time, and really enjoyed the music for the first time in years.

Now some SleuthSayers have been talking a lot about music lately, so I thought I'd add to the theme.  All children grow up on their parents' music, and my parents' music was big band, country (specifically, my mother loved Hank Williams, Sr., and original bluegrass, which she passed on to me), and crooners of the 1940s and 50s.  I liked it all.  But by the 1960s, there was a lot of other interesting music out there that my parents couldn't stand - specifically rock n' roll.  Being a snotty teenager, that's all I wanted to hear.  Except...

There were two truly great moments in music when I was a child, and they were totally out of the blue.  One was when my mother and I were making a bed, with the radio on, and what came on was (I later found out) Dave Brubeck's Take Five.  I stopped tucking sheets, stood up, listened, and breathlessly asked, "What's that?"  "That's jazz," she replied.  "We don't like it."  Well, I did.  But I stored it away future years, when I could buy and play anything I wanted, because I'd just heard something like a whole new way of life.  And I loved it.



But even more overpowering was what I heard in ballet class, and I never spoke of it to either of my parents.  There I was, in my little black leotard and ballet shoes, while the teacher lined up the needle on the record player.  And what followed was a tremendous wall of sound, that came from behind and above and literally took my breath away with its absolute power.  I had never been so moved by any piece of music in my life, and I couldn't figure out if I was afraid, ready to cry, or overjoyed.  It was Tchaikovsky's Swan Theme from Swan Lake.


BTW, Tchaikovsky is to the romantic period what Puccini is to opera.  Masters of emotional manipulation through music, who will make you cry whether you want to or not.  (If you don't believe me, listen to Maria Callas singing Un bel di vedremo from Madame Butterfly)
NOTE:  I've been racking my brains to think of similar master manipulators of emotion in writing, other than poetry, and so far what I've come up with is Beth's death scene in Little Women and Old Yeller.  
Meanwhile, I love watching good ballet.
The women dancing as if putting all your weight on your big toe and then whirling, leaping, and landing on it is the easiest thing in the world.  No, it's not.  It hurts.  And it requires considerable strapping sometimes.  I've known dancers who broke a bone in their foot, or sprained an ankle, strapped it up tight, and danced anyway.  Ballet dancers are more like football players, stripped down to minimum weight.  Same grit, determination, and apparent obliviousness to pain.  At the moment.

And the men who do grand jetes across the stage and look like it's the most normal thing in the world to hang in space.  Watch Sergei Polunin:


Looks easy-peasy doesn't it?  Well, I've helped backstage with costumes, etc., and I can tell you that to dance like that means that, as soon as they're backstage, they are on their knees trying to breathe.  But moments later, they're back on their feet, pretending like they don't need oxygen.

Meanwhile, I'm still trying to figure out how The Nutcracker became a holiday tradition.  Fine, it's set at a Christmas party, but there's no Santa, just a fairly creepy magician (Drosselmeyer) roaming the house at will.  And what young girl would choose a nutcracker as her favorite toy / present?  Especially one old enough to also dream of a charming prince?  BTW, where does Drosselmeyer get his literal living dolls from?  And what's with all the mice?  Is this where C. S. Lewis got the idea for Reepicheep?  But of course it makes no more sense than, say, The Magic Flute.  Opera, ballet, if you're looking for plots that make sense, stick with mysteries.

But The Nutcracker is and will be a perennial, because it allows every dance troupe / school the chance to include everyone, from the littlest 3 year old to the season subscribers.  (Yes, a lot of those older party guests are season subscribers, who get - as a perk - the chance to stand around in the background, sometimes with real champagne, and attend the cast party later.)  Anyway, this means big money in the till, because every relative is coming to watch Betsy as a chocolate cupcake and Ralphie as a mouse.  And more power to them.  In these United States, the arts need every penny they can get.

Meanwhile, here's The Nutcracker Sugar Plum Fairy pas de deux.  Enjoy.











7 comments:

Paul D. Marks said...

Fun piece, Eve. I also really like Take Five, though I'm not a huge jazz fan. And I love the Swan Lake piece. But I have to say every time I hear it I think of the Bela Lugosi version of Dracula, other old Universal horror movies where they used it and in Waterloo Bridge as well. And I think a ton of other movies. I like it in and of itself, but it does bring up those movie memories.

janice law said...


Another classical music fan! And how nice you can once again enjoy the Nutcracker with all its gorgeous music not to mention the Christmas tree. And its indestructable, witness the recent The Hard Nut, an avant guard production and the fascinating one set in Chicago at the time of the World's Fair. Brava!

Eve Fisher said...

Thanks, Paul and Janice. It is amazing how much classical music is used in older movies (and some modern ones) - and let's never forget "What's Opera Doc?"
Some day I'm going to write more on my days as a ballet administrator, i.e., dogsbody. For one thing, while all arts troupes have similar backstage stories, ballet cast parties are... unique.

Eve Fisher said...

BTW - I just realized that this is my 200th blog post for SleuthSayers! I am stunned! Thanks, everyone, for reading me for so long.

Lawrence Maddox said...

It IS totally immoral to begin Black Friday on Thanksgiving, sending out crazed shoppers "belching turkey, stuffing, and pumpkin pie," as you so well put it. It also sucks for the poor workers who end up putting in crazy hours on Turkey Day. A very funny piece,
Eve. Love how you described "Take Five" as a window into a whole new way of life. Look forward to your take on Christmas!

Barb Goffman said...

You have such an interesting background, Eve. Have you made use of your ballet background in your fiction? If you haven't seen it, there's a cozy series with a ballerina as the main character. The first one is Curses, Boiled Again! The author is Shari Randall. You might like it.

Eve Fisher said...

Thanks, Lawrence!
Barb, I'll have to check that series out. The only use I've made of ballet is in "Pentecost" in the MeToo Anthology. But I've been thinking I should do more with it. Why I never thought of it before is one of the mysteries of life...