Howlings / Dances with Wolfes
Published 1:30 pm, Tuesday, November 9, 2010
For those of you who have been kind enough to read my column each month, you are familiar with my tone. I'm trying to give humorous voice to many of the foibles of our lives as modern men, as professionals, as commuters, as husbands, and as fathers. Some of the issues may seem serious (and some of you may have worried about the sanctity of my marriage's privacy), but I'd rather look at our lives with a lighter focus.
But now I'm going to play with fire. I'm taking on an institution so revered, so beloved, so entrenched in so many lives that the sheer thought of writing this column has me fearing for my safety. I will be accused of blasphemy. I will be ostracized. Mothers will scream "How dare you!" as they shield their kids' eyes and pass quickly by me in the aisles of Whole Foods. Alas, the hordes may never forgive me, but I must forge on in the name of my, uh, art.
This month, I'm writing about The Nutcracker.
I'm going to assume that most of you, at some point, have seen some kind of ballet performance of The Nutcracker around the holidays. It's hard to imagine that Tchaikovsky had any idea how ubiquitous his score would become in the lives of millions of children around the world (if he had, I hope he would have made his name a little easier to spell; my word processor keeps trying to change his name to Chicories or Chicanos, either of which would have been a little simpler to handle).
When my daughter expressed interest in dancing, we couldn't have signed her up faster. My mother ran a dance school when I was young, and despite years of fruitless attempts to turn me into Mikhail Baryshnikov (including hiding my baseball glove behind piles of Capezios) I showed absolutely no interest in dance. It's a good thing too, because I look a lot more like Elaine Benes than Fred Astaire on the dance floor. Just watch me at a Bar Mitzvah and you'll understand. But here was a chance to delight my parents and keep dance alive in the Wolfe family, and I wouldn't have to don a leotard to do it.
It turns out that Westport has a fairly renowned local dance academy, so we knew our daughter would be in good hands. And let me be clear here: she has loved every minute of her experiences in ballet, so I know it's a fantastic program. I would highly recommend it to any parent looking to get their child into dance. (And yes, these sentences, while absolutely true, are also obvious attempts to avoid backlash from the school; if you see me this year at the back of the auditorium, you'll know I failed.)
But I had no idea how serious an operation this Nutcracker thing is. First, the rehearsals, which occur approximately every 90 minutes for about three months, can not be missed. Parents are signed to a formal legal contract that they have full understanding of the commitment necessary to be a part of The Nutcracker, and that any absences from rehearsals must be accompanied by a doctor's note or a presidential pardon. It seemed a little heavy-handed, but in a way it only enhanced our excitement to see the production. And my daughter never complained, despite going to practices so often that she started to call her brother "Fritz" and demanded sugar plums for breakfast. They're hard to find, by the way.
When the date of her grand ballet premiere approached, we mobilized our extended family. Everyone bought tickets, and made plans to travel from near and far (well, as far as Delaware) to see her in her glory. After so many hours and hours of rehearsals and practices, I had visions of stardom in my head. And as we filed into the school auditorium at showtime (easily filling two rows of seats with family and friends), I felt great pride in knowing that my daughter's time to shine had arrived.
And then the show started.
It was lovely, but where was my daughter? I knew she was among the youngest dancers, and would not exactly have a lead role in the production, but I was anxious to see her pirouette on stage and prance lightly but elegantly around the elaborate holiday set. The entire first act was nearly complete, but there was no sight of her.
Finally, as the curtain dropped just before intermission, a line of angels began walking from the aisles onto the stage. And there she was, radiant in her costume. I had a talent agent's number pre-set on my cell phone and prepared to dial. "Here it comes," I thought, and waited for her startling performance to begin.
She walked on stage, bent her knees about three times, and walked off.
My jaw dropped a bit, as I felt the eyes of my extended family move away from the stage and toward me. They looked confused at best, maybe hiding a little anger behind their furrowed brows. Finally, after some awkward silence, came a single sentence from the row behind me. I think it was from my father, who summed it up nicely. "When does she come on?" he said. That was it, Dad, thanks for coming. Her glory lasted approximately 8.4 seconds. I knew I was going to have to refund some gas money on this one.
But she loved it, all of it. What could I do? After giving her enough flowers to pollinate the universe, I looked down at the program given before the performance. In addition to the list of dancers, there is a large bank of advertisements, often including notes from parents saluting their daughters and the various parts they've played through the years. One of the notes read something like this:
"Jenny, we're so proud of you! All these years you've made such a lovely angel, mouse, sheep, boy, girl, snowflake, Arabian, Russian, sugar plum fairy, candy cane, soldier, al dente pasta noodle, right-wing political talk show host, hybrid SUV, and Clara. We love you! Mom and Dad (third marriage)."
It was then I realized that I was going to be going to this show, this same exact show, for a long, long time. And I'm clearly not alone. Usually around this time of year, I can hear other men quietly humming the Nutcracker score on the train to Grand Central. It's not their fault. The Nutcracker has them (and me) in its grasp.
But, of course, it gets a little better each year. Now, as I've watched her grow into more prominent parts, I can see the pieces of a real dancer emerge. I am nothing if not a proud, gushing father, and I glow every time she prances onto that stage. Even at home, as she practices in front of the dumbfounded dog, she loves imagining herself on that stage, and I love watching her.
So, in the end, it's worth it. But just be forewarned. You're signing up for a long ride. The Nutcracker, for a parent (even a proud one), almost never ends.
Michael Wolfe writes a monthly column for the Westport News, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.