Karen Gibbons-Brown sees The Nutcracker as the typical story of good vs. evil.
It’s a reminder of how a child faces evil at every turn and how that child can find safety in the search for truth, says Gibbons-Brown, the executive director of the Fort Wayne Ballet.
The story is told in an array of wonderful dances, elaborate costumes, magical scenes and lively music. Gibbons-Brown says it’s a wonderful sensory experience, and the audience should be prepared to be swept away in the magic of theater.
But many moments in The Nutcracker are potentially confusing and sometimes even upsetting to young children: the Christmas tree growing tall, Clara’s sorrow over her broken nutcracker doll, Uncle Drosselmeyer with his vaguely sinister eye patch, and, yes, life-size mice and toy soldiers engaging in battle. Later, as the ballet becomes less plot-driven and more of a spectacle showcasing the costumes, orchestra and dancing, children may become restless or bored.
As the Fort Wayne Ballet prepares for its annual performance of the ballet, which begins Friday, Gibbons-Brown, and others, offer tips to prepare if you’re planning to take a child to see the show this holiday.
Share the story, don’t spoil the magic
Larry Attaway, chairman of the dance department at Butler University in Indianapolis, says it helps if children understand that the whole first part of The Nutcracker’ is real, but when Clara falls asleep, the rest of it is entirely her dream, and sometimes dreams are scary, sometimes dreams are beautiful, and sometimes dreams are really strange.
But Gibbons-Brown revels in the nuances of the performance, allowing the audience to ponder such questions as Was this a dream? and whether Clara actually shrinks to the size of the toys and mice, or do the toys and mice get bigger?
This year’s Fort Wayne Ballet production will be the final time for some of the set designs and scenery that have been used for many years. The ballet began rebuilding sets last January, which will be used for next year’s Nutcracker performance, Gibbons-Brown says.
Many of the ideas stem from Gibbons-Brown’s yearly review of the ballet’s performance. She takes notes on things that can be improved and what should be done differently for the next performance, she says.
It’s those set designs that help make the magic of the show. Also, discovering the history of certain elements can help a child understand the ballet and make it more enjoyable.
For instance, Gibbons-Brown explains that the sweets featured, such as sugar plums, were special treats of that time and come from different countries.
Parents at home can find online summaries of the story and video excerpts. You also can get storybooks (including a version illustrated by Maurice Sendak), coloring books, toys, paper dolls, musical recordings and other props to familiarize kids with characters and plot. Just make sure they know that, as with many fairy tales, it ends happily: Clara wakes from her dream with her family, her doll and her magical memories.
Some may want to show a DVD of the entire ballet at home, but Gibbons-Brown says there is no comparison to watching a DVD and seeing the real thing.
Save the movie for afterward so you don’t spoil the magical fun of their first Nutcracker’ experience that could go on to become an annual tradition, said Tauna Hunter, director of the Mercyhurst University dance program in Erie, Pa.
Etiquette and acting your age
Gibbons-Brown suggests arriving about 30 to 45 minutes before curtain time. This will allow time to see the sights and get settled before the curtain opens. She says once the curtain opens, the story begins.
The Fort Wayne Ballet will again partner with Fort Wayne Animal Care & Control to incorporate adoption-eligible dogs in the Act I Party Scene. The dogs will be in the lobby for visits during intermission and families interested in adoption can start the process right there.
Gibbons-Brown says there are barrels set up in the lobby to accept donations of animal food and other items.
Because intermissions can be challenging for young children, she also suggests locating the bathrooms before taking your seats.
Gibbons-Brown wants parents to know that it’s OK to clap. Sometimes parents try to keep their children quiet, she says, and while there shouldn’t be conversations, audience reactions, such as oos and aws, inspire the dancers.
Attaway says kids have one part of audience behavior down pat: At the end of the dance, you applaud. They’ve got that nailed down. But other aspects of theater etiquette – being quiet, sitting still – must be taught.
Most kids are captivated by the first act, with its well-defined characters and dramatic moments, like the party where Clara’s brother misbehaves and breaks her toy nutcracker, or the sword fight with the mouse king.
There’s so much going on that it keeps them very much enthralled, said Attaway. While they might vocalize a question or reaction, they probably won’t be bored.
It’s harder to maintain attention as the ballet progresses. As a parent and director, I found that young children have a difficult time getting through the pas de deux (dance for two) toward the end of Act II, Hunter said.
You may find your sleeve tugged with complaints of hunger, thirst, boredom or bathroom needs. For parents unopposed to bribery with junk food, offering a lollipop at the right moment can quiet discontent and buy time.
But if your kids hit a wall and can’t settle down, feel free to leave. Don’t make it torture, said Attaway. Better to enjoy part of the show and go than to suffer through the whole thing, admonishing a squirmy little body to Sit still! while disturbing others.
Still, if they make it through the pas de deux, there’s a payoff. The finale will get them excited again and ready to go home dreaming of sugar plums, Hunter said.
Gibbons-Brown says ultimately people should turn off their electronic devices, take a breather and allow yourself to get caught up in the show.
Hum a few bars
Many passages from Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s soaring score are so well-known that even people who’ve never seen the ballet recognize the music: the march from the party scene, the Waltz of the Snowflakes, and of course the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, with the bell-like tones of an instrument called a celesta, the pizzicato (plucked) violins, and the mellow bass clarinet and other woodwinds.
In fact, that magical sugar plum melody has turned up so often over the decades in everything from Fantasia to Verizon ads that your kids may already know it. But additional listening to The Nutcracker soundtrack at home can only add to their enjoyment of the performance.
That said, you needn’t arrange a formal concert in your living room. One family makes an easygoing tradition out of playing the music in the background while decorating their tree.
Meet the dancers
After the show, the audience can usually meet and talk to the dancers. Children can see the costumes up close, and even touch them, Gibbons-Brown says.
The Fort Wayne Ballet hosts Sugar Plum Parties after matinee performances, where children and adults can meet Clara and her friends and take pictures with selected members of the cast.
What is a nutcracker?
Some people collect them, some display them, some ask for one as a wedding gift. But few people use nutcrackers on a daily basis. Most kids won’t know what they are. Does it matter?
Yes and no. You can explain what they’re for, maybe even show how they work if you own one and have an unshelled pecan lying around. But don’t sweat it, Attaway says: It’s one of those pieces of information that’s totally obsolete. To understand the ballet, all they need to know is that the nutcracker in the show is a toy or a doll. That’s how Clara looks at it.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.