The Magic of ‘The Nutcracker’

If the show can go on, a flicker of hope will too
Snow scene from The Nutcracker ballet

When I was a little girl, there were few outings more magical than a trip to see the Nutcracker ballet.

My sisters and I dressed in our Sunday best and climbed the narrow staircases of the posh theater. We held our breath when the lights went out and the notes of the familiar music wafted into the audience.

By the time the curtain rose on Clara and Fritz peeking through the keyhole of their Victorian home, I was completely captured. I don’t think I blinked until intermission, trying as I was to take in every costume and prop and pas de chat.

My two sisters and I were ballet students ourselves. We had read E.T.A. Hoffman’s story and committed every hummable tune to memory — the cheery opening when guests arrive at the Christmas Eve party, the fantastical score to the snow scene, the delicate bells of the Sugar Plum Fairy’s dance. Yet there were always new delights, a funny moment from Mother Ginger, a spectacular pattern in the Waltz of the Flowers, a stunning lift or squeal-worthy set of turns by the Fairy and her Cavalier.

Then, my sister grew up to be a ballerina. One December when I was in college, I drove an hour to see her stretch and balance as the exotic Arabian princess. I snuck backstage afterward to laugh with her at how she had been a young fan and now was one of the ballet’s stars.

So of course, when I had children of my own, I stitched the Nutcracker into our Christmas traditions. As each child turned four, he or she was invited to a matinee at the theater. One year, my son became transfixed by the harpist playing in the lobby. Another, my tiny girl cowered in her seat for the entire battle between Nutcracker and Mouse King, barely daring to peek through the fingers she cupped over her eyes. Night was always falling by the time we exited into the chilly air, bidding adieu to our enchanted afternoon.

What is it about the stage, the score, the steps that draw us in? I think it’s the act of dropping our worries at the door, escaping the limits of our everyday, embracing our imagination. We enter the theater and anything is possible.

So it shouldn’t have surprised me that a few years after spying the sparkling scenery, my own daughter followed her aunt’s lead into the wings.

As many girls do, she first appeared as one of Mother Ginger’s children and an angel. Then she became a girl at the party, rocking her doll and ducking away from Fritz’s naughty friends. As she grew, she leapt from mint-clad pipe player to saucy Spaniard to whimsical wind-up toy.

At the end of last December, she and I huddled around the kitchen table after her final performance, too adrenaline-charged to do anything but wonder what next year’s Nutcracker would bring. Would my dancer play the part of a hummingbird? Share the stage with a cavorting dragon? Could my girl hope to one day dance the most prized role of all, Sugar Plum Fairy?

Because that’s what dancers do. They strive always to reach the next milestone, to meet the next challenge.

The calendar hadn’t marched far into 2020 before every dancer I knew worried that, like school and sports seasons, summer camps and vacations, Broadway plays and the New York City Ballet’s performances, Nutcrackers around the world would be canceled.

Without them, there’d be no magic, no break from the mundane. Shuttered Nutcrackers would be one more way that loss and sadness triumphed over celebration and joy.

It turns out, though, that there was time enough, creativity enough to construct a way to bring the beloved fairy tale to life despite a very real global pandemic.

At least in Roanoke, the stage would not stay dark.

And my dancer? The one who wakes early to rehearse for two hours, heads home for virtual school, then drives back to the studio for four more hours of class? The one who burns through a pair of pointe shoes a month? The one who says “no” to outings with friends because she must stay healthy to dance?

In this most heartbreaking of years, she will become the Sugar Plum Fairy, tapping into her talent, her grace, her heart to delight theater fans across Southwest Virginia and beyond.

Sugar Plum is always a big role, but this December, every bourree, every jete holds a flicker of hope.

If the Nutcracker can go on, maybe our lives can, too.

This essay first appeared in The Roanoker magazine’s November/December 2020 issue.