NEW YORK, N.Y. - Melody Campbell-Goeken remembers taking her son to see "The Nutcracker" for the first — and as it turned out last — time when he was 5 years old, at the Municipal Auditorium in San Antonio, Texas.
"As soon as he saw the giant rats and mice, he yelled loudly, 'I'm outta here!' and fled the aisle," his mom recalled. "That was the end of that highly expensive family memory. I suppose I should have prepared him much, much better."
Indeed, 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.
Of course, no adult goes to see "The Nutcracker" without recognizing that the audience will be full of children who may never have seen a ballet or live performance before. There's more tolerance than usual for fidgeting and maybe even the occasional outburst.
But if you're planning on taking a child to see the ballet this holiday, there are things you can do to prepare. Familiarizing children with the story, the music and audience etiquette can make the outing more enjoyable for all. Here are some tips.
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."
Butler's classical ballet program invites 4,000 public school children to attend a full-length performance of "The Nutcracker" each year, and the college supplies teachers with material beforehand to help kids understand what they'll be seeing. "Nutcracker" prep includes not just telling the plot, but also explaining that "the things that were under the tree in Act I all come to life in one way or another" during the rest of the show, Attaway said.
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.
But don't show a DVD of the entire ballet at home. "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, THE ACTS AND ACTING YOUR AGE
Attaway says kids have one part of audience behaviour down pat: "At the end of the dance, you applaud. They've got that nailed down." But other aspects of theatre 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," said Hunter.
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," said Hunter.
HUM A FEW BARS
Many passages from 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.
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, says Attaway: "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."
MANY VERSIONS OF THE CLASSIC
If your child isn't ready for a traditional, full-length version of the classical ballet, you may be able to find an abridged performance, a dance school offering highlights or even a puppet show with dialogue. There are also alternate versions set in the present and even "Nutcracker on Ice" shows. Make sure kids know that the production they see might differ from the story they read.
Some dance companies have events for kids with souvenirs and backstage tours. The Houston Ballet hosts a party of cookies and punch where children can meet performers and take pictures with them.
OUT OF THE MOUTHS OF BABES
Finally, here's a summary of "Nutcracker" prep from a young lady far wiser than her years. Ellie Eikenburg, age 9, has been going to see the Houston Ballet "Nutcracker" since she was 2. Ellie's advice is as follows:
—"Go with your family."
—"Get all dressed up like a person in 'The Nutcracker,' like the sugar plum fairy or a ballerina."
—"Read the book 100,000 times before you go. There are many different versions of the book, so it can be confusing."
—"Make sure you are quiet or the ushers will hush you and ask you to leave."