Holidays, Happy/Sad, and the music of The Nutcracker

This is a personal piece about the music of The Nutcracker and how I relate to it.

There’s a tweet-length payoff in CAPS @ the end. It’s not very interesting unless you read up to it. Sorry!

As a kid, I got to dance in The Nutcracker. I first got to do it as a kid kid, from ages 8–12, with the New York City Ballet. In New York, that’s “the” Nutcracker: the one Balanchine choreographed on one of the world’s flagship dance companies. It’s performed at Lincoln Center, at what was then called the “New York State Theater” but is, I’ve just learned, now known as the David H. Koch Theater, though I kind of bet most people still use the old name.

It’s an approximately 2,600-seat theater; I was a kid participating in one of the banner seasonal events of my city/community; friends came; I was dancing with NYCB, etc. This gloss softened somewhat when, in I think my 3rd year, I was heartbreakingly (I’m not sure if those italics are ironic, earnest, or both; they’re both, but I’m not sure the ratio) not selected to be Prince, and was again made a “party boy”, which is what most of the boys in the cast who get to be in the show get to be (girls have more roles: they’re soldiers in the battle; they’re hoops; they’re the my-gosh i forgot the name tiny little good-dancing gremlins who come out of Mother Marzipan’s dress or whatever t/f that lady’s name is (played by a man, btw: that dress weighs like three-thousand pounds); they’re Angels, walking around on bended knees to get that hovering effect).

But even after I wasn’t selected as Prince, the gloss never fully went away. Of course. Standing backstage as the overture played (I was, more than once, one of the first “party boys” to arrive at the party that begins the ballet); joking with the members of the corps de ballet who played my parents — even at eight or nine, I had a sense that this was a pretty ho-hum gig for them: you don’t join NYCB to walk around in period costume and pantomime waving, you join it to rip the world open with the greatest modern ballets in the rep and dynamic works by new choreos. But they were also in good spirits. Everybody likes The Nutcracker, even if you don’t.

It was fantastic.

Then, senior year of high school, I got to be in The Nutcracker again. This time I got to be the soldier doll, whose brief and athletic solo (also in that first party-scene; I never broke out of that d#mn first party-scene) I had mock-performed many times as an 8 to12 year old, in the dressing room in the bowels of the State Theater, because all the kids in the party scene watch that dance and it’s full of cool dude-bro athletic footwork and we (the little boys) loved it and learned it. And now I got to be it! Not with NYCB — I had long since taken myself off/been removed from that hyper-elite track of dancer-training — but with a smaller and wonderful company called Dances…Patrelle with which I was privileged to work, given that most of the other kids there were indeed still at SAB or similar places, i.e. on that elite track. I was not at their level in terms of either native ability or — to be honest, I see now — focus on craft. I did my hours, but I (mostly) lacked fire; although perhaps with a ton more native ability my ‘fire’ deficiency wouldn’t have been so pronounced, or I would’ve found more fire in myself? Doesn’t matter (really). I felt and feel acutely grateful just to be there, to have the opportunity.

And while I was doing this production, high-school Senior December, I was grappling with the decision of whether and how to continue with dance when/if I went to college. There wasn’t really an if about college, just about whether to go the following year or maybe take some time to “really dance”. I think I knew, in my heart, that I wasn’t going to take some time to “really dance”; but I also think that those months senior year of high-school and the following summer were as close as I ever actually came to doing that, and sometimes your heart changes and you do the thing that you think in your heart you’re “not actually going to do”, and I think I was wise enough at 17 to know that, too.

So I was teetering on an exciting precipice. I remember walking across Central Park on a cold winter day, to the tech rehearsal. This was a weekday so I wasn’t in school, which was very unusual for me in high-school; I didn’t miss a single day until junior year, and then in total I think I missed like 1 or maybe 2 sick days, and then 2 or maybe 3 days for things like this (professional dance stuff). So I already had this surreal sense of “anything’s possible” and I remember walking — it was a sunny cold day in NYC, like winter often is: crisp, cold — and knowing I was going to a much more “grown-up” role in a smaller production than the one of my youth, but one I was proud of and proud to be part of, and sort of thinking/feeling hunh, maybe this.

So now we get to the point.

I, like y’know billions and billion-billion humans before me, have been deeply printed upon by the music of my life. Music that I’ve heard many times in specific contexts; music with a specific sense of association to time, place, people. And there is no music in my life that etched so deeply in me as the music of The Nutcracker.

I avoid this fact, because it’s — to be honest — lightly etched into many people, and understandably so: it’s such a seasonal favorite. So, many people (understandably) enjoy humming along as the soldier’s dance comes on, or any of the many “songs” in the second act (which, I think, is part of its appeal: how that second act is broken into a series of songs with charismatic melodies).

And I avoid this music, and the fact of its place in my life and my heart, not because it’s painful, but because it is hard and a little heavy: not bad heavy, but deeply happy and sad and melancholic. It’s about the enduring and constant passage of time and the non-negotiable loss of the person we were even yesterday, nevermind almost 30 years ago, and the disconnect and dissatisfaction with how and whether we’ve realized the potential of that 30-years-ago person, as well as the fire and promise and hope of the future: there’s a 30-years-from-now me, looking back (gods willing), and I hope things I do today will help me meet the promise that today-me holds, in his eyes, as he sees or hears something reminds him of me, sitting here, right now.

Literally all of these thoughts happen to me if I hear a bar of music from The Nutcracker. Honestly, that’s a cursory summary. It’s an emotional poleax and I pretty much have to (emotionally) sit down, take a sec, catch my breath.

All of which is to say…

…THESE FEW WEEKS OF THE YEAR, IN COFFEE SHOPS AND GROCERY STORES AND RETAIL STORES AND EVERYWHERE, ARE PRETTY FULL OF EMOTIONAL POLEAXES 4 ME.
CUZ DAYUM DO WE LIKE PLAYING NUTRACKER MUSIC IN DECEMBER.

It’s the smallest, first-worldest, most privileged of “burdens” ; but it’s mine, and I wanted to share it with you.