In an old high-school auditorium in west-end Toronto this week, Christmas magic is brewing. Every December, the Pia Bouman School for Ballet and Creative Movement puts on a performance of The Nutcracker. This is its 26th anniversary. My daughters – full disclosure – have been dancing in it for years. What Ms. Bouman and her troupe achieve is astonishing.
This is far from an elite corps like the National Ballet School. The dancers are not, for the most part, destined for a career on the stage. They are ordinary kids in all shapes and sizes. They practise in a converted industrial space in gritty Parkdale. The GO train thunders by across the street and a methadone clinic just opened up around the corner.
The show is run on a shoestring. Volunteers, most of them parents of dancers or former dancers, build the sets, sew the costumes, do the dancers’ hair and makeup, sell the tickets and run the intermission snack bar. Last weekend at Humberside Collegiate, where the show opens Thursday and runs till Sunday, middle-aged dads were hanging racks of dangling snowflakes, taping down sheets of black plastic flooring, draping gold lamé curtains and rigging up the Christmas tree that grows on stage when Clara and Fritz have their dream (or is it a dream?).
The result is a charming and amazingly professional show, with gorgeous costumes, impossibly cute younger dancers, accomplished teenaged leads en pointe – and, of course, Tchaikovsky’s score, with all its heart-lifting crescendos and hummable interludes.
How can Ms. Bouman and her crew create something so extraordinary out of thin air? For one thing, they set the bar high. Ms. Bouman, an elegant grandmother trained as a dancer in the Netherlands, has the natural authority of a ballet mistress. Giggling girls fall silent when she raises her chin for attention. She is not a martinet – her eyes twinkle warmly when she surveys her charges – but she expects her dancers to come ready to practise.
This is not child’s play, she seems to say. It is art. Art requires not just inspiration, but discipline. In an era of lowered expectations, when few teachers dare to push students to reach for the limits of their abilities, it is an invaluable lesson: Work hard, keep at it and you can create something beautiful.
Just as important, work together. The essence of the Bouman Nutcracker is creative collaboration. Everyone is equally honoured in this family of dance, from the littlest cook bouncing across the stage in a white chef’s hat to the Sugar Plum Fairy in her pas de deux with the Nutcracker. Everyone pitches in. Give, Ms. Bouman gently asks – and then give some more. She is impossible to refuse.
That doesn’t mean the school is a perfectly harmonious commune. The girls compete among themselves for the plum roles. They may complain when they don’t land the part that they cherish. Eventually, though, the show goes on – all for one and one for all. In spite of the frustrations, stresses and heartaches – dancers’ tears are a staple of Nutcracker season – this little community muddles through.
In that sense, it is a little like a city. Sometimes, you wonder how on earth it functions. Somehow, miraculously, it does. The Bouman Nutcracker is the same way: an annual miracle.
I have watched it for a solid decade now, marvelling each year at how the dancers grow. Every chapter of childhood unfolds before your eyes on that stage. All of a sudden, the little girl who carried a foam-rubber piece of cheese in the battle of mice and soldiers is a young woman in white playing the Snow Queen with heartbreaking grace.
This year, my eldest daughter is that girl. It is her final year at the school and the crowning moment of her young life. I’m happy for her individual success, of course, but happier still that she has had the chance to see what marvels people can achieve when they come together as a community and set their eyes on the stars.