What is it with The Nutcracker? I’ve been to see it probably seven, eight, ten times. I’ve been to see it with a tot and a pre-tot, the latter wheezing heavily on my lap, the former leaning on my arm in a state of self-hypnosis, arhythmically fidgeting and counting the number of faux candelabra hanging from the ceiling and the walls of the theater, while I surreptitiously wept.
I’ve been to see it with packs of preschoolers who lolled and lounged on the seats like it was yoga class. I’ve been to see it with throngs of school kids, who, as school kids do the world over, turned on those little recordings they carry in their throats generically labeled School Kids on a Field Trip. (Upon close analysis by a grown-up, the sounds emitted seem to consist of random ambient noise with no discernible language, but the sounds do have meaning. They signify Corralled Happiness or maybe Devious Joy.)
I’ve been to see The Nutcracker with a spritely seven-something and the seven-something’s sibling who was ten and comparatively somber, being in the Middle Age of childhood.
Once I had an experience surely unmatched in the history of Western music in which I went to a performance at the Wilma Theater of The Nutcracker and a concert at the Kingdome by the Rolling Stones in the same 48-hour period. My companions for this sequence of events included a second-grader and a fourth-grader, each of whom presented to their teacher on Monday morning a furry Rolling Stones’ trademark tongue sticker. They had no similar fetish to offer from The Nutcracker, I’m sorry to say, just the invisible demarcation of yet another year with one more memory.
Actually, memories of The Nutcracker are all the same memory, since the performance is virtually unchanged from year to year (not counting those leap years when the town dancers simply skip it). Going to The Nutcracker is the perfect pre-Christmas ritual because it has that “one Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner now and out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep” quality. Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales wouldn’t be so moving if it were about one particular Christmas.
My companions to The Nutcracker are always one or another or both of the same two children, in different incarnations. And that is the point of The Nutcracker, for me, and at least part of its emotion. Through its utter predictability, The Nutcracker is a pungent marker of the passing of time. Its constancy forms a backdrop from which we emerge.
It has become fashionable these days to note that Tchaikovsky considered The Nutcracker to be a shameless piece of pop art, a real crowd-pleaser churned out just in time for the holiday season, in the same manner as Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and probably, for that matter, Thomas’ generous swirl of words. But these works carry meanings beyond their first intentions. They have become not so much nostalgia pieces as memory grooves. Like Rolling Stones concerts, they are places where memory happens. We don’t remember these works, these events, so much as we remember through them.
When I go to The Nutcracker I both will and won’t watch it as an all-new, unfolding drama. I definitely won’t wonder what will happen in the end. But I will remember other times, past times, with a sense of sweet foreboding.
The 21st Century Dance Company performs The Nutcracker at the Wilma this Friday and Saturday at 1 and 7 PM, and Sunday at 1 PM. Tickets prices vary. Call 728-6090 to reserve tickets.