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first person

Illustration by April Dela Noche Milne

Every year, for the past 30 or so, in the second week of December, I sit in orchestra rehearsal and wait for a moment to arrive. When it does, I’m required to hop into whirling double-dutch skipping ropes of staccato 16th notes that wind around a simple melody. I try to copy the move made seconds before by the flute.

I was never good at skipping rope.

Somehow, by a compensatory miracle I can’t claim to deserve, I’m good enough to reply to the flute on my clarinet, a balky exploding cigar of an instrument. I play this sequence twice, several dozen times a year, in the opening number of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s ballet The Nutcracker. This year of course, I won’t be performing in the National Ballet orchestra. The annual tradition – like so many others – was cancelled by the coronavirus. This year, our 2008 performance is streaming in movie theatres instead.

Nothing, they say, is perfect. Not my first entrance on clarinet, not the flute’s before me, not the violas who establish the rate of four-to-a-beat 16th notes that decorate the almost perfect quarter- and eighth-note melody of the violins. Not even, I’m eventually forced to admit, the music itself, although it comes closest.

In early 1892, Tchaikovsky published The Nutcracker Suite, with music drawn from the full ballet score. In it, he included only eight of the catchiest numbers: Naturally, he opens it with the Overture, followed by six of the Danses Caractéristiques, and then finishes with the beloved Waltz of the Flowers.

Shopping-mall music repeats excerpts of the suite so often that we risk being deadened to the charms of the music. Whether you know where the tunes originated, it’s likely you’ll recognize pieces such as the Marche Miniature, the mysterious harmonies and colours of the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy. Worst of all, the gorgeous Waltz of the Flowers is often reduced to a short, trite song. By contrast, the Overture is seldom part of mall-music playlists, thank goodness!

Among the many challenges of this music, the most daunting moment for me comes during the March: tiny and intricate, a compositional Miniature, perfect for an army of toys. Dut! duh-duh-duh-Dut! Dut! Dut! Dut! Daaaaah… Hear it? Of course. We’ve all heard it a million times.

For years, I could not play a brief sequence midway through the March – a sudden cascade of rapidly articulated scales and arpeggios. This short passage would chew up and spit out my self-esteem every night as I tried and failed. At best, my sound would be an indistinct murmur behind the brilliant flutes. At worst, I’d play the notes at the wrong speed.

Finally, after years of little success, I learned a new technique. It required relearning other aspects of my general technique, so that it made me a better player, and possibly a better person. Just like in Camelot, when a young Arthur asks Merlin what the best cure for sadness is. Merlin’s answer: Learn something.

Ever since I mastered that passage, when the time comes, I gird myself, align my tongue just so, inhale and release a brilliant scattering of pitches, tightly ordered and somewhat precise. What once was impossible is now exhilarating fun, as if I have suddenly learned to ski a mogul run or land skateboard moves (neither of which I can really do).

This year, I’ll miss seeing people I know who bring their kids to the show, and I’ll miss giving them a backstage tour, pulling back the curtain to reveal the hidden secrets just like Toto in The Wizard of Oz.

The tour begins in the orchestra pit. Most players will have packed away their tools until the next show, but the percussion section remains set up; if it’s between a matinee and evening show, the brass instruments might even be on their stands. The harp, a lone sentinel, looks so inviting, but neither harpists nor their extremely sensitive instruments are to be meddled with. The celesta, about the size and shape of an average backyard barbeque, stolidly offers a keyboard that invites a furtive plunk or two. Nobody is allowed to touch much else, and it’s wise to keep an eye on the kids who climb onto the conductor’s podium, who knows what ideas they’ll get. Still, the pit is hardly the main attraction.

So we go upstairs to the stage and find our way to the wings, stage left, where most of the props from Act 1 are still waiting to be reset before the next curtain. The magically expanded tree, the table laid with the plaster feast and the sleigh (riding on a golf cart). Then back behind the main stage, where all the costumes of mice and rats are arranged, ready to be worn by any one of the countless children involved in the show.

Some of the younger guests are bold enough to climb the stairs to the entry points hidden above the stage; walk in and out of the huge Fabergé egg, a gloriously expanded music box from which the life-sized Sugar Plum Fairy emerges. I point out the horse costume because it is beautiful, with carefully wrought flanks and haunches, made for two dancers to manipulate. But as I show them how it works I wonder: How many thought it was real? It’s a terrible thing to let someone see what has fooled and delighted them with an illusion.

But the illusion is not actually an illusion; it is the real life of the performer. My guests, I hope, catch some of the excitement, learning what that might feel like.

This is only the second time I’ve missed the entire Nutcracker run. One year, I was in a hospital just up the street from Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. I missed it terribly then, but this year is worse because everyone – the dancers, the orchestra, the backstage crew, the costume and wig team, and front of house staff – are all out of work. No live show, no excitement of the children in the lobby or the auditorium, no fun and food shared by my colleagues in the green room after the curtain calls.

It has become clear as never before that what I do, and what my fellow performers do, is both cherished and dearly missed by the public. We’re determined to be back again, bringing the magic to life.

Max Christie lives in Toronto.

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