George Balanchine's long-running holiday hit has enchanted children of all ages for more than half a century. Its popularity warrants a five-week mini-run within New York City Ballet's winter season, and it charms generation after generation of children. For me, there has been no better way to rediscover the magic of George Balanchine's The Nutcracker than through the eyes of my granddaughter, Georgia. I have been surprised by what delights her and captures her imagination.
By the time she was five years old, Georgia had seen The Nutcracker on television and watched various productions on DVD. She knew the story and could hum the music, and she had even tried on my old pointe shoes. She was primed to go, and it was time for her to see the real thing.
Our first year we sat in the first ring. From that vantage point, Georgia was skeptical at first that the dancers on stage were real until I introduced her to my binoculars. She took to them immediately and enjoyed herself by zooming in on the action and her favorite characters. For Georgia, who is growing up in the digital age, there was nothing more magical than to realize that all the action was happening live.
Years ago, the children in the audience would shriek, cry, and cover their eyes during the battle between the valiant toy soldiers and the charging regiment of mice. But not this generation of children, who have been weaned on Shrek, The Grinch, and Lemony Snicket movies. Although Georgia rooted for the Nutcracker Prince, and cheered when Marie threw her slipper and saved the day, she confessed that her favorite character was the scary many-headed Mouse King.
At the end of the ballet, when Marie and the Prince depart The Land of Sweets in a high-flying sleigh pulled by two reindeer, Georgia, binoculars in hand, turned to me and triumphantly whispered, "The reindeer are not real. I can see the strings."
The next year our vantage point changed: we sat just a few rows from the stage. From that perspective, Georgia was truly awed by the gigantic Christmas tree that grew up into the rafters, and dazzled by the swirling "snow princesses," as she called them, although she worried they would slip. When the little Polichinelles scampered out from under Mother Ginger's enormous skirt, Georgia spotted the character's stilts. Aha — another secret revealed! Fascinated by the "gliding angels," Georgia zeroed in with her binoculars on the angels' feet and discovered they scooted so smoothly because they took such tiny steps. Georgia, who has a sweet tooth, wished she could sit on the throne in The Land of Sweets so she could nibble on some of the treats. Ultimately the handsome Nutcracker Prince and the mighty Mouse King were still her favorites.
Last year, we stood at the rim of the orchestra pit and watched the musicians warm up before the performance. Seven-year-old Georgia looked at me, puzzled, and said, "They aren't very good." I explained that they were just tuning their instruments, and assured her they would be playing beautifully for the performance. Georgia had just started violin lessons, and when she plays it sounds like the "tuning stage," so she was relieved that these musicians knew what they were doing.
Our annual visits to The Nutcracker have become a tradition. Georgia looks forward to seeing and anticipating her favorite parts ("Watch, Grandma, the bunny will pull the Mouse King's tail") and wants to share those moments with her younger sister, Grace, "when she is big enough." This year Grace is indeed "big enough," and I'll get a whole new set of surprises as she discovers the ballet's magic in her own way. And that, of course, is the secret to The Nutcracker's success.
Astrida Woods is a frequent contributor to dance and theater publications.