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Pointing to Christmas

'The Nutcracker' is an enduring reminder of what the holiday was before video games and licensed toys.

November 28, 2002|Hillary Johnson | Special to The Times

Once upon a time, weary parents heaved a resigned sigh when the Christmas decorations went up the day after Thanksgiving; now the sighs are deeper and come sooner, as the garish ads and incentives begin to appear right after Halloween. But just when consumerism seems likely to swamp us, along comes the sweet, gentle "Nutcracker," which is all about the true magic of gift-giving and gift-getting.

"The Nutcracker," in all its quaint, sugary splendor, reminds us that there are ordinary gifts like silk ties, golfing gloves, miniature trains and Easy-Bake Ovens, Cabbage Patch Kids and Tickle Me Elmos, and then there are the gifts we are given by more mysterious forces: the gift of a loving home, of a crystal-clear day or of a child's budding talent for the dance.

When Tchaikovsky's 1891 ballet had its U.S. premiere in the 1940s, it received lukewarm reviews from dance critics, who thought the music was lovely but that the opportunities it created for dancers were exceedingly bland. How surprised they would have been to learn that, some 70 years later, "The Nutcracker" has come to embody the holiday spirit for hundreds of thousands of families across the nation, especially for the those whose ballet-crazy daughters go to sleep at night dreaming of someday dancing the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy.

This year there are at least 14 productions of "The Nutcracker" to choose from in the region, from the American Ballet Theater's professional version to productions mounted by ballet school students and their parents and teachers. (And if you think the soccer mom is a fanatically devoted creature, you have yet to meet a ballet dad.)

For the children involved in these productions, and all the Cub Scouts, Brownies and Indian Guides who flock to see their brothers and sisters onstage, "The Nutcracker" is as relevant today as it was a hundred years ago. The details of the plot vary from production to production, but at its root is a simple tale: Clara receives the gift of a wooden nutcracker from her godfather Drosselmeyer, and the toy sparks her imagination and opens her heart. When her pesky little brother Fritz breaks it, Clara is brokenhearted, but at night she dreams that the nutcracker has come to life -- looking a lot like Herr Drosselmeyer's handsome nephew, by the way. Together, Clara and the Nutcracker Prince defeat the evil Mouse King and go on to take the fairyland equivalent of a United Nations goodwill tour through lands populated by Russians, Chinese, Spaniards and other assorted cultural groups (including, of course, the land of candy, which is ruled by the graceful Sugar Plum Fairy). Clara, who went to sleep a child, wakes from her dream as a young woman.

For the young girls who dance the role of Clara, "The Nutcracker" is also a rite of passage. Hilary Heinke, 13, has been cast as Clara in Ballet Pacifica's production this year. She started dancing at age 3 and was a mouse in her first "Nutcracker."

To her, the story and the happy chaos it brings to her life every year are "magical." "Every year when you audition, you dream of getting a certain part, and it's the same as the story of Clara's dream," Hilary says. "You feel just like you're there in Clara's shoes. When she gets the nutcracker, it's like getting your solo."

For Hilary, the visions of sugarplums dancing in her head are as real as any GameCube or Xbox, and much more soul-satisfying. Hilary's counterpart at the SoCal Dance Theatre is a 13-year-old named Hailey Davis. Her single mother, Terri, is an operations assistant with the sheriff's department. Terri grew up in a large, financially struggling family in Long Beach and never expected that her daughter would be a ballerina.

Hailey practices for an hour and a half every day, then comes home and dances some more to a videotape from the previous year's production. "Sometimes I dance without music," she says. "Wherever I am, whenever I feel like it, I dance."

"It's a way of life," Terri adds. "It's changed our whole family. I just enjoy riding on her coattails. Sometimes I can't believe how much I know about ballet."

Across town at the Westside Ballet School's hectic Saturday afternoon rehearsal, Jim Brunet, one of the ballet dads, has been through the Clara experience and beyond. "After Clara comes the zone of death," he says. "Clara is the last big role they can play that is not on pointe. From there the real work begins when they get their toe shoes and disappear into the anonymity of the corps de ballet."

At Westside and other ballet schools, parents must commit to many hours of volunteer work, sewing costumes, producing fliers and selling cookies. Brunet is handling the program as well as making a behind-the-scenes video. His 15-year-old daughter, Gillian, has been dancing at Westside Ballet for 10 years.

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