A colleague recently told me about taking his son to see The Nutcracker. The dancers were on pointe, the symphony was in tune, and everything was peachy . . . until it wasn’t. During the middle of the play, a horse was brought onstage to trot around, adding an old-timey flair to the performance, but as it sauntered from one end of the stage to the other, it slipped and fell. Gasps sounded from the crowd. The lights instantly turned off, the music came to a screeching halt, and the curtain came flying down. The audience—mostly families—sat in their chairs for a solid 10 minutes before the performance resumed.
I was a little scared to go to The Nutcracker after hearing that story. But I’d never seen the ballet before, and thanks to a classical-music class I took in college, I think Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky is a rock star. My 65-year-old teacher was just as enthusiastic about classical music as I am about rock & roll. She sang opera and loved the piano, and when she played Chopin for the class, she gracefully stacked her hands over her heart, letting her eyes glaze over until the piece finished. She had a thing for Gustavo Dudamel, the conductor of the LA Philharmonic, the way I had a thing for Chris Cornell (RIP!).
On Dec. 14, the Segerstrom Center for the Arts was decked out with holiday lights and decorations. It appeared as if a disco ball exploded into a million pieces, all of which tastefully landed on branches and streetlights, making them twinkle the way they might under layers of snow. Ballerinas in toe shoes danced gracefully in place near the entrance. “You have six minutes to make it to your seat,” a staff member yelled to the attendees still outside Segerstrom Hall. “If you’re not in your seat in six minutes, you’ll be stuck out here until intermission.”
As soon as I took my seat for the American Ballet Theatre production, the lights went dark, and a spotlight shone on David LaMarche, the conductor of the Pacific Symphony. LaMarche raised his hands in the air, which provoked a wave of sound from the audience. The musicians in the orchestra pit also raised their instruments in the air. From my seat, all I could see were the tips of violin and cello bows, as well as the tops of a few woodwinds bouncing with fervor. It was silly and awesome, and made me wish I had stuck with playing the clarinet.
The Pacific Symphony opened the night with “Overture,” which quickly led to the start of act one. The set was a kitchen, with sausages hanging from the ceiling. Eventually, a bunch of rats begin raiding the food. They dance around the kitchen eating food and rummaging around, then end up fighting, hitting one another with the sausages and essentially running off the stage like crazies. If only in real life we could run offstage when we feel the scene should end.
The first half of the play was focused mostly on the children. The performance was a blend of burgeoning ballet dancers and professionals. The best part of the first act was when Clara and the Nutcracker are walking around outside and it starts to snow, signaling a group of at least 20 ballerinas who resemble fairy snow princesses to enter the stage. The little girl sitting in front of me gasped loud enough to pierce through the music. She reached for her sister, who was in the seat next to her, and looked at her, her face in a perfect “O.” The sister responded with equal excitement, slamming both hands to her cheeks and squishing her smile. The first sister laughed in response, prompting their mother to shush them. With their hair coiled into buns, the little girls resembled aspiring ballerinas; they were on the edges of their seats the entire performance.
Behind me and to the left was a woman in her fifties who was conversing with the person next to her about an article she read in the newspaper regarding net neutrality. In any other setting, she probably wouldn’t have seemed loud, but I could hear pretty much every word she said. I could also tell she was a longtime smoker. The woman sitting directly in front of her began fidgeting in her seat, and less than two minutes later, she turned around and told the babbling woman to shut up, but the woman didn’t stop talking. Who knew the ballet could get so rowdy?
Intermission came and went in a flash. (Maybe it’s because I downed a glass and a half of wine?) When I got back to my seat, one of the ushers was speaking with the lady who had been talking. I could tell the exchange was a sassy one because they both rolled their eyes when the lights signaled the show was about to resume.
The second half of the performance was my favorite; it’s also essentially a string of Tchaikovsky’s greatest hits. The dances were far more intricate, difficult and enthralling. Hee Seo was the evening’s principal ballerina, and the way she moved was, as the cliché goes, poetry in motion. She exuded a celestial elegance that made you feel her passion.
Her performance made me wish I stuck with ballet. As she was thrown in the air, I had a flashback to when I was barely 5 years old. I demanded to be put in ballet because all my friends were doing it. I made it to four classes (if that) before I was over it. I wrapped my pinky in tape and told my mom I was seriously injured and couldn’t go on with ballet anymore. My mom rolled her eyes at me and made me finish the session and go through with the recital.
“I want to be a Sugar Plum Fairy when I grow up!” one of the little ballerinas in front of me said to her mother.
“You can be anything you want, including the Sugar Plum Fairy, if you work hard and stay in school.”
The little girl turned to her sister with furrowed eyebrows. “I hate school.”