How changing The Nutcracker is bringing me full circle

I have a soft spot for classical music and it’s not because I played the viola for a year (I would like everyone to know that at my elementary school, when you hit fourth grade, you could take “Strings” and learn to play violin, viola, cello or bass and I never made it to Intermediate Strings because I am awful at the viola and the teacher had a major set of crazy eyes). When I was three, my earliest dreams were confections crafted entirely of sugar plums and candy floss skirts and shoes that allowed you to truly seek the heights – I wanted to be a ballerina more than anything.

I watched Baryshnikov’s The Nutcracker in my family room wearing a pink tutu and slippers, attempting to mimic moves I wouldn’t learn for years (Years later, I went back and watched this version of The Nutcracker for nostalgia’s sake. I’m surprised they managed to have a land of snow because Baryshnikov was packing serious heat). I had a ballerina themed birthday party at which one of my mum’s patients, a dancer herself, gave me one of her old pointe shoes with a silver glitter “M” embossed on it – I loved it. I would try it on regularly, obviously not fitting the shoe at all, but dreaming of the day that I would have my own pair of pink satin pointe shoes. And then my mother signed me up for ballet lessons, which I loved and tap lessons, which I hated. Over my decade long dance career I would dabble in tap, jazz, modern dance and Irish step in addition to ballet.

I’ve danced many roles, some bordering on “typical child ballerina” roles to the bizarre – a snowflake, a Mock Turtle (Alice in Wonderland), a gumdrop (Hansel and Gretel), Ireland (I don’t even know), a doll (Coppelia), a flute dancer (no clue), Italian Tarantella (no idea), gold (Snow White), an ice fairy and the Russian Trepak (The Nutcracker) and a maiden (Giselle). I’ve sprained my ankles more times than anyone can count and danced on them anyways (I sprain my ankles now routinely because my studio put me en pointe before the muscles in my ankles were truly strong enough to support me. They roll like dice in Vegas and I’ve invested in many Ace bandages).

As a former ballerina who has not donned her shoes in a decade, there are many things I can’t do anymore. My ankles lack the strength to rock pointe shoes. My toes are no longer so calloused they can withstand being pressed down into blocks of wood. I can’t walk without rolling my ankles. And I can no longer subsist on 1,200 calories a day. A lot has changed since I stopped dancing, but one thing is always consistent – the moves and the ballets themselves.Whenever I need to pound through a workout or just feel super comforted, I find myself searching through my music library to find pieces from Swan Lake, The Nutcracker, The Firebird and Coppelia to bring me back to something I can rely on to stay the same.

I recently went to see the Washington Ballet perform The Nutcracker and I can describe that experience in one word: um…okay? Don’t get me wrong – it was incredibly well danced and the music made me so nostalgic I cried four times before Act II and spent the snow scene surreptitiously wiping away tears (I danced as an Ice Fairy for far too long but still – I get super ballet nostalgic. Ice Fairy was the first rite of passage role signifying the transition to a more grown-up part but it was so slow and boring). I can’t stress enough how incredible the dancing was. You know ballet is done properly when it looks effortless.

However, I am a traditionalist and if you mess with my ballet I will not be happy. The Nutcracker used to get me so excited for Christmas. I would leave the theatre incredibly excited, counting the days until Christmas morning. I left the theatre not even thinking about Christmas after the performance yesterday. Why? Because they took everything great about the ballet and replaced it with America. I wish I were joking.

But the Harlequin doll became John Paul Jones, the dancing doll was Lady Liberty. The Land of Sweets became DC’s cherry blossoms in springtime. The Nutcracker looked like George Washington. The mice were British. Spanish chocolate became dancing colonials. Arabian coffee became Native Americans. Chinese tea became a fish and fishermen. The reed pipes were cardinals, the snowflakes were butterflies, there were squirrels and a fox and mushrooms. What broke my heart was that my personal favourite,the Russian Trepak, which I danced for two years, became frontiersmen in Davy Crockett caps. And I understand adding a twist to a classic production but I wanted snowflakes and candy canes. I wanted a dreamy world of sweets, not the place I run in the springtime. I wanted a heroic nutcracker prince, not a founding father of the United States.

The dancing was, as I mentioned, phenomenal. And it brought up that familiar lump in my throat I get whenever I watch Black Swan or Center Stage. It activated that fever I have whenever I conjugate French verbs and come across dégager or échapper. My toes started twitching because it’s been so long since they were wrestled into shoes that are essentially designed to torture and warp them. I can’t even remember the last time the tops of my toes had blisters.

So I made an executive decision. I’m heading back to the barre. I pulled out my last pair of pink satin pointes today. I found them in a bag containing one lone jazz shoe, ghillies (those would be the soft Irish dance shoes), jig shoes (hard Irish dancing shoes) and a pair of split sole soft ballet slippers. I did my usual prep routine – wrapping my toes in lambs’ wool, lacing the satin ribbons just so around my ankles. Then I stood. I felt pain, searing pain because I actually have toenails now and you can’t when you switch to pointe. But mostly I felt just a sweet relief and a sense of remembering my first love, the ballet barre.

And to think, it only took a few squirrels, some butterflies and George Washington to push me to head back to it.


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