Monday, December 17, 2012

"Everything was beautiful at the ballet"* (except, not really)

Something that tends to surprise people (because, in general, I am really into the arts) is that I hate the ballet. (Disclaimer: I took ballet lessons for one year. My dad let me quit. Thanks, Dad!) I feel like the dance moves and the music just don't go together, which is counter intuitive to me. Of course, this would make sense as it is my understanding that, for many classical ballets, the music and the choreography were composed independent of each other (again, counter intuitive). Personally, I like it a lot better when the two work in tandem, like in a Broadway musical. (I love Broadway musicals.)

I especially dislike The Nutcracker. Now before I start being accused of imitating Ebenezer Scrooge, I would like to relate some background on this: I saw my first performance of The Nutcracker when I was about 7 years old. I spent a lot of the performance asking the Aunties (who took me, bless their hearts) when the Sugar Plum Fairy was going to turn up. (I distinctly remember this.) Apparently, the dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy wasn't all that impressive to me because I was still asking about it at the end of the show. (I think it was one of those productions where Clara does the dance so there wasn't a separate Sugar Plum Fairy.) In the immortal words of Kevin Kline, in his Academy Award© winning role in A Fish Called Wanda, "Disappointed!!!!" I really have never seen a production of The Nutcracker that I feel does justice to Tchaikovsky's brilliant composition. (Disclaimer: This has not stopped me from dancing around my house to the music when the mood strikes me. This is referred to as "Interpretive Nutcracker" and is not remotely the same as ballet. In case you were wondering.)

The version of the record I had. (Thanks, Ebay!)
As a child, I had a long playing record of the Story of the Nutcracker that combined Tchaikovsky's music with Claire Bloom's narration of a simpler version of ETA Hoffman's original tale. This story was delightful, with elements of mystery, creativity, terror, heroism, and wonder. Now this was a dark story for a cold winter's night (or at least a dark-er story), and I played that record over and over again, so much so that I can almost hear Ms. Bloom's voice over parts in the music when I listen to recordings of the musical score now. (I actually listened to this album at my parents' house last Christmas because they still have a turntable. [Mine died several years ago. The fabulous JR is looking after my record collection until I replace it.])

(Image also from Ebay)
My mother also had given me a beautiful, hardcover book of The Nutcracker, illustrated by Maurice Sendak (of Where the Wild Things are fame.) This version of the story came about after the Pacific Northwest Ballet asked Sendak to design the scenery and costumes for their "untraditional" version of the ballet one Christmas. The ballet was much closer to the spirit of the original tale, and Sendak's designs, augmented by additional drawings, have become the imaginative illustrations of this book, while a fresh translation of Hoffman's The Nutcracker and the Mouse King brings an edge that I have never seen in a performance of this story (or in "Interpretive Nutcracker", for that matter.)  I love it to bits, and I get it out every Christmas season to reread while listening to a recording of the ballet music. (It's the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra recording, if that matters to you.)

A number of years ago, the Boston Symphony Orchestra did a concert of the complete Nutcracker. I persuaded JeGlide (a sometime co-performer of "Interpretive Nutcracker") to join me at Symphony Hall for the concert. I was so excited; I was practically jumping out of my seat. Not having the dancers in front of me while hearing the familiar music performed by a full symphony orchestra (and conducted by Seiji Ozawa) was such a treat and left such a fresh impression of the music that I really started to appreciate The Nutcracker all over again.

I think that it was because I enjoyed that concert so much that I actually agreed to go to the ballet again when my friend RJ invited me to join her at a performance of Prokofiev's Romeo & Juliet. We ended up leaving at intermission, and we may or may not have left because we were laughing and falling sleep intermittently. (Fortunately, the tickets were free, passed on from a colleague who had season's tickets and couldn't make that night's performance.) So the ballet still isn't for me, but I do love The Nutcracker, just not the ballet of The Nutcracker. Isn't it nice to know that there are plenty of ways you can still enjoy it without all the dancing?

* Lyrics from "At the Ballet" from A Chorus Line, a Broadway musical and therefore acceptable to me

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