Children are our best shot at immortality. How they remember us – kindly or negatively – often depends on the traditions we establish. Force a child to go to Messiah or The Nutcracker too soon and you can create lifelong aversions to the symphony, the ballet or even outings with granny.
I shudder guiltily when I remember my bored daughter, age nine, stomping out of Messiah at the first break, out-distancing my husband who was hobbling after her in a cast because of an incident involving kittens and a staircase. We still go to Messiah every December but our daughter rarely joins us, and I always blame myself for insisting she come that first time.
We were luckier with The Nutcracker. We took her first when she was 6, and sat up in the gods of Toronto's former O'Keefe Centre squished between aged aunties who were visiting for the holidays. She was mesmerized. Since then the two of us have gone to The Nutcracker many times – one year, we even appeared on stage as Cannon Dolls.
My son's twin daughters are now almost 6, so I decided to take them to The Nutcracker this year, even though in past years I have watched several overwrought little princesses hauled sobbing and kicking out of the auditorium. Beforehand, I sought the advice of ballerina Sonia Rodriguez, a principal dancer with the National Ballet of Canada for more than 15 years – and a mom.
Rodriguez has reprised the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy many times, to the delight of audiences of all ages. "It is a show that is geared for families and children," she said, pointing out that the production is lavish, "like eye candy," with so much going on that audiences can find something new to admire every time.
Rodriguez says that matinees are more relaxed and therefore easier on young children. Even so, she doesn't recommend taking anybody younger than 5 (especially boys), because it "is a little hard to keep them in their seats." She also suggests familiarizing kids with the story ahead of time: that way "they will be more engaged to want to see it on stage" and "more excited [when] they see the characters come to life."
Rodriguez is such a pro, I knew she would keep on dancing no matter how disruptive the audience, but I wasn't leaving anything to chance. To stave off tears and misbehaviour, I strategized with my daughter-in-law, as though we were planning something as momentous as the D-Day invasion of Normandy, instead of an afternoon at the ballet with granny.
As twins, the girls have an intense affinity for each other. I've taken them to children's concerts and plays and watched them decide it's much more fun playing together under the seats than singing along with the music. They're also twice the handful: I've had the terrifying sensation of being simultaneously choked by two sets of arms because something scary was happening onstage.
For The Nutcracker, tough granny decided we needed two sets of seats on opposite sides of the auditorium, each inhabited by one child and one adult. Even my darling grandkids are more likely to act out in public when their parents are around, so instead of their mother I invited their zany auntie, my daughter, as an added enticement.
As the big day approached, my daughter-in-law read the story of The Nutcracker to the girls, told them they could premiere their new Christmas dresses as a special treat, and did whatever was necessary to negotiate the seating arrangements – sitting with auntie was a priority – without hurting my feelings.
That afternoon, my daughter, who has a great sense of occasion, strode into the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts sporting a festive pair of black sparkly ankle boots. The girls arrived in their party dresses, each of them clutching a sequined purse containing a chocolate-covered biscuit for intermission and a $10 bill for post-performance treats. As we took our seats, each duo spotted the other and waved across the aisles, like visiting royalty. The twin who is less eager to individuate kept it up long after the lights dimmed and the curtain rose.
The four of us compared notes at the break, as the adults sipped prosecco and the twins gobbled their chocolate. Both girls were enchanted in the first half by the dancing bears, the scurrying mice, the galumphing horse and the unicorns – especially the one who wishes she could turn into one, complete with horn in the middle of her forehead. They also delighted in pointing out that, unlike the version of The Nutcracker that they had read, this ballet has two children, a boy and a girl, and sometimes they squabbled.
"Here's where the Sugar Plum Fairy appears," my twin explained in a stage whisper when the curtains opened on the enormous gold Fabergé egg early in the second half. Both girls were enraptured until about 20 minutes before the end. They began to get restless, but they had nobody to fool around with or poke, which made me glad I had separated them.
"Why is it just dancing?" my twin asked me. "That's how they respond to the music and each other," I whispered back. She thought for a moment or two.
"They're really whispering when they look at each other like this," she said, stretching out her arms, turning her head sideways so that her face was in profile, and nodding to an imaginary partner. Well-spotted, I thought. She has the beginnings of a dance critic, or at least a subscriber.
Reading the story ahead of time was a great idea, as is playing Tchaikovsky's score after lights-out at night so it too can become familiar. We had such a good time that I'm already thinking that going to The Nutcracker may be a Christmas tradition for a new generation. Next year, I'll ask my daughter-in-law to join us.