Sunday, December 2, 2007

Nutcracker Syndrome

First, to all fellow-Catholics out there: Happy New Year! It's the first Sunday of Advent, the start of the liturgical year, with its seasons and cycles of darkness and light. I love marking time over the course of the year with an arc of scripture readings at every liturgy designed to take us on a journey from birth, with its hope for future joy and its celebration of gifts already among us, to death, to rebirth. This path of stories and prayer gives the liturgical year shape and direction, a sense of seasons turning and hope always returning. I love it. Calendar New Year depresses me, but liturgical new year is my favorite. :)


I took my kids to see Boston Ballet's Nutcracker this evening (there's a great blog-like feature on their site, a Nutcracker diary from last year's production written by dancer Sarah Wroth). I still remember when I took my daughter to see it for the first time a few years ago - how magical it was when the 19th-century town came to life under an evening snow, with Joel Prouty's amazing leaps to usher in the first act, and Paul Thrussell's Drosselmeier setting the tone for an enchanted Christmas on stage. The company was especially strong back then, and I often boasted to non-Bostonians that we had the best Nutcracker in the United States.

The dancers are different now, and the choreography has been changed, but the production has kept a lot of the magic that entranced us before - glorious sets and lighting, a dancing bear, humorous (even satirical) moments during the battle against the mice, a balloon ride for Clara and a flying Drosselmeier. While I miss the "older" version, I'm glad we still have a production to be proud of, one that lets us see our "children's faces looking up / holding wonder like a cup," a la Sara Teasdale.

My kids were chatty about their favorite "magical moments" as we walked back to our car through a snowy Boston common, its trees all lit up for the holidays.

"Mine was when Drosselmeier made the hanky fly around," said my son, who enjoys magic tricks. "And when the Christmas tree got bigger and bigger."

"I liked when the mice came out, and when the Nutcracker prince became human," chimed my daughter. "And the baby mouse and little black sheep were cute."

And of course we loved seeing that snow fall on stage.

Transformation, wonder, and dreams for a happier world: these are the gifts of a good Nutcracker, and a well-lived Christmas season.


Uncle Drosselmeier was played by Jared Redick, whom I had met over 20 years ago at his mom's ballet studio during a master class taught by Melissa Hayden. He wouldn't remember me, but I remember him not only because he was the only boy in the class but also because when a pin went flying out of my hair during a pirouette he bothered to pick it up and hand it back to me - a kind gesture, I thought at the time. So for that tiny little interaction I reserve the right to be proud of our hometown guy (ok, Reston, VA is not super-close to Bethesda, MD, but I still say he's a hometown guy). He's a beautiful dancer as well as a talented actor whose Drosselmeier really helped create the magic of tonight's performance, capturing the perfect balance between charm and mystery - almost-but-not-quite dark, like you want to ask at first, "Are you a good witch or a bad witch?" until you realize, yes, he's one of the good guys, for sure. At least, in this production.

I do love the famous Baryshnikov Nutcracker that airs on PBS every year, especially the interesting choreography for the Grand Pas de Deux, but there's a sexual coming-of-age undercurrent there (as well as a bittersweet ending that's a little too pained) that takes away some the childhood innocence that makes our Boston production such a confection. The Drosselmeier in that one's a shade more sinister than Jared's, though still on the "good" side, ultimately. The Baryshnikov version may be more in keeping with the original tale by E.T.A. Hoffmann, though, at least in spirit. In the original story

-Drosselmeier gives his goddaughter, named Marie (not Clara), a toy Nutcracker, which comes to life one night along with her other dolls and battles a Mouse King.

-The next day Drosselmeier relates the story of how a curse once transformed a princess into an ugly, Nutcracker-like creature with a large head and teeth, a wide mouth, and a beard; Drosselmeier's nephew changes the princess back to her beautiful self by being the only one who can crack a nut open with his teeth (a key element of the prescribed cure, apparently); in the process of doing this enormous favor, the nephew gets the curse on his own head because he accidentally stumbles over the Mouse Queen who placed the curse to begin with; the princess sees his ugliness, freaks out, refuses to marry him, and has him thrown out of the castle.

-Marie eventually breaks HIS curse by taking her toy Nutcracker and promising that if he were real she would love him no matter what he looked like. Drosselmeier brings his restored nephew to meet her, they are betrothed (even though she's REALLY young), and they travel to the Doll Kingdom, where she is crowned queen.

I have no problem with sending the message that people shouldn't be judged by their physical beauty or ugliness, though I think in this society it's an almost hopeless endeavor. I'm unsettled by this darker Nutcracker because I don't know of any fairy tales or archetypal stories where a male hero makes the heroic choice to love an "ugly" female. So what I'm calling the Nutcracker Syndrome is not the medical entity - entrapment of left renal vein between the aorta & the superior mesenteric artery, causing hematuria - but rather the psychosocial phenomenon
already noted more than once in magazine and internet articles on human relationships: the attractive female / seemingly-unappealing male combination. I am uncomfortable with the fact that this has been observed as an identifiable "type" of couple, and also with the observation that the reverse-type is uncommon. I am bothered by the fact that I've thought shallow thoughts too as I watch physically "mismatched" celebrity couples strolling down the red carpet. What's really eating at me is the fact that I am capable of even thinking the uncharitable thought that someone is unattractive, just on sight, even if that someone is me in the mirror.

I guess it's normal and human to assess what we see, categorize it as appealing or not, beautiful or not, but applying those assessments to human beings has led to so much pain and suffering in this world. Could it be that our capacity for judging by standards, for defining what is beautiful or not to ourselves, is the root of much of the world's evil - cruelty, prejudice, racism, classism, abuse, betrayal, hurtfulness, pride, vanity, having the wrong priorities? Yet it's that same capacity that gave my children and me the wondrous experience of a magical night at the ballet...


During the Arabian dance the male dancer "summoned" the female onstage by sharply clapping his hands - a jarring choreographic device I hadn't seen before. Was it a political statement about the way westerners perceive women to be treated in "Arabian" cultures? Or a politically questionable jab at the Middle East? I'm not sure - I'm still too surprised by the (intentionally?) misogynistic gesture to think clearly. My son perhaps has the most grounded (and adorable) interpretation: "Maybe it was just his signal so she would know when to come on stage." I wish I could believe that...
Today marks the 27th anniversary of the murder of four churchwomen in El Salvador. Check out this article about the tragic killing of these heroic women.


Bardiac said...

Hmm, in Chaucer's "Wife of Bath's Tale," there's a variant of the "loathsome Lottie" story in which a young man gets married to an old woman (in quite misogynistic terms; welcome to the middle ages). But then Chaucer mixes it up, as he tends to do, so it ends as a male fantasy. (The middle ages had a fair number of stories about young men courting and marrying "old" widows--mostly for their money; the Wife of Bath, herself, talks about her most recent husband as one.)

Sorry for the nerdly digression. Sounds like a wonderful ballet! How was the oboist?

Anonymous said...

OK---you're an anesthesiologist, mom with a husband who travels, oboist who still takes lessons, and you still have time to share movies with your kids, take them to the Nutcracker, cook, have your own spiritual life, keep this blog. . .AND you take (took?) master classes in ballet???

I am despondent at my apparent incompetence. I am an anesthesiologist mom too but have utterly failed at having a life.

T. said...


Bardiac - I had to review my Chaucer after hearing from you! :) RUSTY!

I noted with interest that while in Hoffman's Nutcracker, the "beautiful" one (Marie) stays with the "ugly" one willingly / by choice, in the Wife of Bath's tale the knight has to marry the "loathely lady" totally AGAINST his wishes; he doesn't "look past" what is skin dip, or see lovability despite the exterior, but rather is dragged kicking and screaming (figuratively) to the altar and is still miserable with time, until he comes to the enlightened (?) choice of letting his wife choose to be who she wants to be.

And of course, as you mention, what she wants to be happens to be a male convenient...hardly the naive heroism of our little Marie who is willing to devote herself to her Nutcracker despite all appearances. Either way, still a man's world! Sigh....

BTW, the oboist was highly competent. Tchaikovsky really lets the oboe soar in all of his ballets, not just Swan Lake, I was pleased to note!

And anonymous from 3:49pm on December 4...Please, please don't be despondent! I didn't have anything resembling a real life all during residency, except the few occasions when I'd be let out of my cage to do some liturgical dance at our Boston College parish, and the odd kid's birthday party here & there. The only reason we've been able to share a richer life now is because life after residency got much more reasonable and liveable, hours-wise.

My life has been like a cathedral: it would totally collapse without the buttresses! I have lots of support around me! What I don't discuss too much here on the blog is all the things I FAIL to do every day or am completely TERRIBLE at: my house has piles of books and now sheet music all over it, my kitchen needs an overhaul, I'll never get the basement organized or get caught up on laundry, I'm constantly behind on little school announcements and permission slips...It's a miracle my kids' dental appointments went well yesterday (thanks to my wonderful husband), and that the Tooth Fairy was able to find my son's first lost tooth on time (again, the great husband is KEY). I cook, he launders and loads the dishwasher. My in-laws and parents help out whenever they can however they can. Our friends pitch in. Our kids are understanding. Lots of buttresses!

And the master classes were a LIFETIME ago...I was a teenager! Now I'm a plump, thirty-something, out-of-shape, non-soccer mom who grabs quality time with the family in little bits and pieces - a moment here, an evening there.

All I can say is, I have people around me who are supportive of my doing the things I love (I mean, no one balked when I said I had signed up for oboe lessons - OBOE! How random!), and who encourage and help me every step of the way. I owe them a huge debt of gratitude!