On Seeing The Nutcracker ballet

As I mentioned on Facebook yesterday, we saw a production of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker ballet at the San Francisco Ballet (click link for a 1-minute video sample), on Saturday 12/19, and had the good luck to snag first row seats, with the stage at an inch or so above eye-level and the orchestra pit directly below us. I confess I spent almost as much time watching the orchestra as watching the dancers (as I’ve done a couple other times in years past when I happened to be close enough to the orchestra at the philharmonic or opera performance); performing music, no matter how clever or passionate, is a job for these people, and so it’s not surprising to see them go through the motions professionally but without much visible enthusiasm. Unlike, say, popular soloists, like extreme case Lang Lang. (Curious note: the conductor was to our left, so we were above the 2nd violinists and the brass. At least three of the 2nd violinists used earplugs, against the brass players just behind them. How do they hear themselves play?)

As an aside, the orchestra appeared to be about 80% white and 20% asian, with a lone elderly black man performing on a bassoon. The ballet company, quite large for this particular production, with new sets of dancers for its many scenes, was somewhat more diverse: numerous asians (especially the stand-in for the regular dancer of the Snow King), several blacks, and dancers who seemed to represent the ethnic presumptions of the various 2nd-act dances, perhaps only through costume and make-up: russians, arabs, latins.

There were also a remarkable number (again, considering the many scenes in the 2nd act especially) of child dancers, meaning anywhere from age 8 to 15, I’d guess, and it looked to me as if they were having a terrific time. In response to my Facebook post, Gary Westfahl’s wife pointed me to his rather curmudgeonly essay on the subject of this ballet, titled Unknown Menaces to Civilization #3: The Nutcracker Suite, which strikes me as the reaction of someone who’s been obliged, more than a few times over the years, to attend performances of this ballet, which Gary claims no one really likes, especially the ballet companies, who dutifully put it on each year only to make money to sustain the remainder of the season.

He may be right. In my case, never having been obliged to attend this ballet at any time in my entire life, I don’t suffer from any kind of overexposure. Two points: I believe this is only the third ballet I’ve ever attended in my entire life, the first being some unremembered event on a field trip in grade school, the second being the Matthew Bourne production of Swan Lake, back in the ’90s, because, well because you know why. On the other hand, an LP of the Swan Lake and Nutcracker suites (not the entire ballets, just highlights knitted together into suites) was one of the few classic music LPs my parents owned, and which I grew up listening to. (Others were a similar pair of Gershwin suites, and the Grand Canyon Suite by Ferde Grofe.) Eventually I heard the entire Nutcracker ballet, and have a CD set somewhere, so I was very familiar with the music before having ever seen the ballet, or even having much idea of the ballet’s ‘story’. (Thus, one lumbering melody I’d always thought had a vaguely nautical feel, turns out to be music for a lumbering circus bear!)

Back to the orchestra: I noticed two or three players, especially one of the first violins on the other side of the conductor from us, who seemed to be having a really good time, responding to the music, smiling or almost swooning in the case of that first violinist. But most of the players, as I said, were relatively stoic.

The production itself was clever, especially in the way the sets ‘expanded’ in the first act, as the little girl fell asleep, the wooden Nutcracker grew into a life-size dancer, and the mice came out of the woodwork to battle the soldiers.

There were a fair number of children in the audience, all well-behaved as far as I could tell, and I couldn’t help but think that one reason this ballet might have persisted for so long is that, with its many children dancers up there on the stage seemingly having such a good time, it might be the greatest recruitment tool for new young dancers in the ballet repertoire.

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