The (Nutcracker) Prince and Me

This post has been included in this year’s Best of Holidailies collection!

A Very Young Dancer

Hi, I’m Melissa, and I’m addicted to The Nutcracker. Oh, not the story by E.T.A. Hoffmann, but the ballet based upon the story. You know the one – it has music composed by Tchaikovsky, and everyone trots it out in December.

I blame my Auntie Annette for this addiction. Of course, she wasn’t really my auntie at all, but a dear friend of the family, one who always seemed to waltz, rather than merely walking, wherever she was going, and who always smelled like the forest at Christmas, even though I’m pretty sure the most rural place she ever lived was Connecticut.

Every junkie has a gateway drug, and mine was a book called A Very Young Dancer, by Jill Krementz. It’s not a story, so much as a captioned photo-essay about a young girl named Stephanie, a student at the School of American Ballet, the feeder school for the New York City Ballet, who is cast as Marie in the annual production of – you guessed it – The Nutcracker.

It was Auntie Annette who gave me the book – a book I still have, by the way, the year I was six or seven. (Amazon says the publication date was October 1976, but I’m pretty sure I had it in August. Then again, Auntie Annette had connections so it’s very possible she gave me an advance copy. I have vivid memories of being the first of my friends to know anything about this book.)

Let’s assume my memories are correct, and I was six. I was still taking ballet lessons then, and I have an equally-vivid memory of another aunt’s dog eating my ballet slippers the following summer. But really, it doesn’t matter, that book got me hooked on The Nutcracker, and I remain loyal to it decades after I stopped taking ballet lessons, or, in fact, any kind of dance classes whatsoever.

But isn’t The Nutcracker the first ballet for almost every little girl? I mean, I guess some kids see Coppelia first, but it’s not quite as engaging, or as magical. (By the way, has anyone noticed how many ballets are based on some kind of doll coming to life? Not just ballets, actually, but children’s stories in general.)

My earliest memory of seeing The Nutcracker live is when I was nine and we lived in Arvada, Colorado. My best-friend-at-the-time and I had been in a fight for the weeks leading up to the performance, but our mothers had bought a row of seats for the four of us and her little sister. Each of us, independently, had worked out how our mothers would sit next to each other, with us on their far sides, so we wouldn’t have to talk.

Of course, by the time the actual day came, we’d started speaking again, which both good – because for weeks afterward we did our best to recreate the ballet in their basement bedroom – and bad – because my mother worked with one of the dancers, or knew her mother, and had arranged for us to go backstage, and that meant I had to share the experience.

My addiction was cemented at that point.

Since then, I’ve seen numerous productions, both live, and on video. San Francisco Ballet’s version is one of my favorites, but I grew up on PBS’s annual airing of the ABT version with Mikhail Baryshnikov & Gelsey Kirkland, and that’s still the one I know best. I’ve seen the movie that was made out of the Pacific Northwest Ballet’s version (which features sets designed by Maurice Sendak. (Yes, that Maurice Sendak.) It’s a favorite as well, and just the other night I was watching a version of the NYC Ballet’s interpretation that was filmed years ago, and features a Home Alone era Macaulay Culkin as the Nutcracker/Prince.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve started to see different things in the different versions of the story.
For example, Marie (who is sometimes Clara), is often played by a child, as is, in fact, the Nutcracker Prince. These interpretations usually have lots of children in the first act, and very few in the second (only those who pop out from under Mother Ginger’s skirt), while Marie and the Prince pretty much just watch Act II from a throne all the way upstage.

Other interpretations use an adult dancer as Marie/Clara, or at least an older teenager, and play up her budding romance with the Nutcracker/Prince. Sometimes they even get an Act II pas de deux.

The Nutcracker/Prince is often introduced in the Act I party scene as Drosselmeier’s apprentice or nephew, which means that, if Drosselmeier isn’t merely an ‘affectionate’ uncle, Marie and the boy are kissing cousins.

A rare few interpretations (and Pacific Northwest Ballet is one of them) add a dash of unresolved sexual tension between Marie/Clara and Drosselmeier. (There’s a fanfic waiting to be written.)

I haven’t catalogued all the details of every production, obviously, but I do know this: during December there is a version of the Nutcracker playing somewhere almost every day. In the next two weeks, my DVR will be recording at least six different productions, only one of which I’ve seen before. There are at least seven local live productions of the ballet happening in the same time period, within 30 miles of my house. (I might drag Fuzzy to one. He’s never been.)

I prefer the live performance experience: the thrill when the overture starts to play, the way the audience always gasps when the Christmas tree starts to grow (which is really Marie/Clara shrinking, of course, but…it’s still cool), the little girls all dressed up for what is, for many, their first time in a real theater, and the obligatory trip to get hot chocolate (when I was a kid) or Irish Coffee (now) afterward. I love the pure dancing in Act II, when the Sugar Plum Fairy dances with her cavalier, and the Dew Drop Fairy dances with her flowers.

But even if we don’t make it to a live performance, I’m looking forward to having a few dates with my Nutcracker Prince over the weeks between now and Christmas. He’ll bring the great music and muscular thighs, and I’ll bring coffee, Danish butter cookies, and my appreciation of the arts.

And when Christmas comes, and the magic is over for a year (because a post-Christmas Nutcracker is just as sad as the early morning walk-of-shame after a poorly chosen one-night stand) I’ll put my Nutcracker, the one sent to me from Germany, back in its box, and focus once more on more contemporary stories.

But only until next year, of course.

I mean, you can only go so long until your next “fix.”

Holidailies 2014

Black & White (From Music of Conscious to Melody for the Masses)

This year for Holidailies, I’m also podcasting daily through the month of December. Click HERE to visit my podcast site, and listen to yesterday’s entry.

Pete Seeger

My #MusicAdvent pick for today, from 1972, was another Three Dog Night song, one I mentioned a couple of days ago: “Black and White.” My two-year-old self probably fell in love with the catchy melody and watered-down message of unity. Hey, I come from a progressive, liberal family. What else would you expect?

It’s a song that has stayed with me most of my life, partly because of it’s innocent optimism, and partly because it’s just fun to sing. And hear. And bop around the house to. In my head, when I hear this song I’m six or seven, with golden-brown hair that borders on being strawberry, and thick braids, and a summer tan, and sand in my shoes. I have memories of having a family friend, one who was trained as a classical musician, to play it on his organ (and we’re not talking a cheap electric organ, but one of those room-filling instruments with pull-out stops for different sounds, and a dual keyboard, and…yeah).

So, yesterday, when I went looking for the songs of my first few years of life, I investigated the history of this song (thank you, Wikipedia), and learned that Three Dog Night’s version, while immensely popular, is a cover of a song that was written by David Arkin and Earl Robinson, and first recorded by…wait for it…Pete Seeger.

No, really, it’s a folk song.

In fact, it’s a folk song about Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, which ended segregation in public schools.

Here is one of the verses that the popular version omits:

Their robes were black, their heads were white
The schoolroom doors were closed so tight
Were closed up tight

Nine judges all, set down their names
To end the years and years of shame
Years of shame

And here is another:

Oh, the slate is black, the chalk is white
The words stand out so clear and bright
So clear and bright

And now at last, we plainly see
The alphabet of liberty

The activist part of me likes the original better. It has more depth, tells a better story, and makes sense.

But the Three Dog Night version is the one that turns into an earworm, probably because they based their version on a reggae-inspired cover by a British band, and that freshens the melody, and adds syncopation that the original didn’t have.

But it loses the message.

Want to compare them yourself?

Here’s the Pete Seeger version:

And here’s Three Dog Night:

Which one do you prefer…and why?

Holidailies 2014

#MusicAdvent – Music and Coffee (and More Music)

This year for Holidailies, I’m also podcasting daily through the month of December. Click HERE to visit my podcast site, and listen to yesterday’s entry.

Joy to the World

The first song I remember hearing on the radio is Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain.” It was released in November, 1972, or about three months after my 2nd birthday. Something about either the imagery (my story) or the cadence (my mother’s story) of the “clouds in my coffee” refrain stuck in my toddler-brain. Perhaps this means Ms. Simon is to blame for my coffee habit. After all, until I was a teenager, my mother drank instant. (Yeah, I know, the thought is truly frightening.)

The first pop songs I remember asking musician friends to play, or humming on my own were a kind of eclectic batch that included Donovan’s “Happiness Runs” (they taught it to us in school, Shaun (yes, you read that right, Shaun) Cassidy’s “Teen Dream” (which album my mother would not let my then seven-year-old self have, claiming I was ‘too young’), and 3 Dog Night’s “Black and White” which, interestingly, is also from 1972. This is relevant only because I told another Holidailies blogger that I was pretty sure no one actually remembered music from their ACTUAL FIRST YEAR OF LIFE, and, indeed, while I may have since learned music from my birth year, 1970, I don’t have any organic memories of commercial songs from before I was two.

Why am I talking about this at all? Because:
a) I love music. I mean, there are times when I think in music. If there was a movie of my life, it would be a musical.
b) One meme at a time isn’t enough, and so many people mentioned this #MusicAdvent thing that I’ve caved and decided to play.

I’m not entirely certain of the rules, but apparently you share a song that matters to you every day during Advent, and this year, people are supposed to begin with their year of birth, and post song from each of their first twenty-five years of life…which means if you’re under twenty-five years old, you’re kind of screwed, I guess, or you can just make up your own rules.

Anyway, since it started yesterday, I’ve got two songs for today.

Day 1: The Carpenters, “Close to You,” the number one single from the week of 15 August 1970 (I was born on the 17th).

Day 2: The song from my birthday week is the Bee Gees’ “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart,” but it’s not a song I really like, and there were so many good songs from 1971, so I’m going with Three Dog Night’s “Joy to the World,” because it never fails to make me grin, and it was on Billboard’s Hot 100 list in the summer of ’71.

Holidailies 2014

Happy Holidailies

This year for Holidailies, I’m also podcasting daily through the month of December. Click HERE to visit my podcast site, and listen to yesterday’s entry.

Coffee Spa Ever since I first heard about this ‘Holidailies’ thing several years ago (about a decade, I think) I’ve anticipated the beginning of December. It’s become more than a meme, more than yet another project added to the ton of things going on in December. It’s become a sort of annual reunion where I reconnect, not just with a daily writing practice, but also with the other people who also participate every year. It’s like getting a holiday newsletter that I actually want to read.

On the other hand, it’s nice to meet new people, too, so, even though I don’t typically do intro-posts, here’s the brief on MissMeliss

– I call myself the Bathtub Mermaid, because I was born near the beach, but leave farther from one than is practical for frequent visits. Most of my best ideas come from the time I spend steeping in the tub.
– I used to refer to this blog as both “escribition” and “uber-caffeinated.” I write this blog as an open journal, because I don’t do well with personal diaries.
– I’m a voracious reader, I bleed coffee and tea (they alternate), I have four dogs of my own, plus a foster, and I talk about them a lot. I hate reality tv, all the negative ‘isms’ that enlightened people always hate (racism, sexism, etc.), and bok choy.
– I use social media, but at the same time, I think our addiction to being plugged in has hurt our ability to be kind to each other. I believe we simply know too much of the surface stuff.
– My approach to religion and spirituality is kind of fluid. I’m kind of a questioning Episcatarian (that’s my combination of Episcopalian and Unitarian) with humanist tendencies and a culturally Catholic background.
– I don’t do selfies, and when I travel, I don’t always take pictures because there are times when being IN the moment is more important than capturing an IMAGE of the moment.
– I love to cook and bake, and usually find excuses to give away most of what I bake.
– Hot baths, hot coffee, good books, cuddly dogs, and time with my husband are some of my favorite things in life. Not necessarily in that order.

Holidailies 2014

Image Copyright: marrakeshh / 123RF Stock Photo