As I write today’s post, I have just returned from a trip to the New Haven Ballet’s production of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker. This is a trip I have been taking with my fifth graders for several years now. Some look forward to the trip, some are skeptical about seeing ballet, and a few are sure they don’t want to go but do because I talk them into it. Without exception, the skeptics and objectors are changed boys and girls. Their eyes are now lit up, they are smiling, excited, and can’t stop talking about how awesome the show was. I’ll discuss some of the things about the performance my students enjoyed, but first I want to make the point that this transformation in their attitudes, and this unconditional enjoyment that they find in attending The Nutcracker is a testament to the power of live music and theater. As much as each student enjoys recorded music, they literally don’t know what they’re missing until they attend a live performance. The idea of ballet, including what they have learned about it, is replaced with the emotion born of sight and sound; the music, dancers, costumes, scenery, and the energy of an audience of their peers is so much more than what they expected.
The performance we attend is a special student performance, edited down to a ninety-minute presentation, mostly by omitting the first act, the party scene, and then including a behind the scenes look at the stagecraft of a professional ballet production between acts two and three, where an intermission would normally go. During that time, the children were given the opportunity to ask questions. “How does the snow fall?” “How does the curtain go up and down?” “How long did the dancers have to practice?” What is the snow made of?” These are the questions children asked. They all have to do with the parts of the ballet that they could not see or even imagine from listening to the music ahead of time, or learning the story of Clara and her adventure with the nutcracker turned into her prince.
Then there is the music, which nearly every child has heard at some point. Many have been well-prepared by their music teachers before attending, so that at least the tableaux pieces are familiar. Many have also heard some of the themes in television commercials for Lexus and jewelry. There is a delight in them as they sit there watching the ballet and taking it all in at the moment they recognize the next musical piece. Smiles, eyes opened wider, and perhaps a whispered “I know that music.” There it is, the Russian Dance or Snowflake music that they had heard before, but that now has a magical, illustrious sparkle amid bright costumes, expert dancers, and even falling snow.
During this interval, the students were also shown how the dancers do some of the moves and steps they had been watching. The Snow Queen and her partner showed how they did pirouettes and jumps, how she danced on point, and how he supported her during a spin. Because we were seated in the first rows of the theater, my boys were able to appreciate how much strength it takes to be a male ballet dancer, lifting the girl over his head and often holding her while carrying her across the stage. They understood by being up close to those dancers that men who dance ballet are strong and athletic.
Next year at about this time, if things go the way they usually do, I’ll have some students, mostly from those who initially did not want to attend The Nutcracker, ask me if they can go again. Every year I have sixth and seventh graders who want to go. This experience is worth doing for precisely this reason. Attending live music and theater is not only fun and emotionally rewarding, it is the stuff that life-long memories are made of.