I was twelve years old and attending my classes at the Houston Ballet. The auditions were coming up for The Nutcracker and all the girls who were auditioning for a role in the ballet had to dance the same thing – a fact that would become important later, but at the time I was fine with that requirement. I knew very little about the story of the Nutcracker. I asked my mother what the ballet was about. She informed me that it was about a girl named Clara who was given a Nutcracker for Christmas and has some strange dreams.
Immediately I decided that I had to be Clara. I had to be the star of the show. I was going to be Clara and that was all there was to it. For weeks, I practiced my audition piece. Every spare moment was spent on this dance so that when I auditioned my talent and my perfect rightness for Clara would shine like the rhinestones on my imaginary tiara.
Finally the day arrived. I informed the instructors I was auditioning for Clara.
One of the instructors looked surprised. “Are you sure?” she asked.
I said oh yes, I was very sure. That role was mine.
In retrospect I see that the gentle attempts at dissuading me were actually the biggest compliment that I could receive, but at the time, I had tunnel vision. “You’re very good,” the teacher said. And frowned.
“Then I’m sure to be Clara!”
I did my audition, and was great, and got the part of Clara.
It was only a few weeks later, when we began rehearsing for our performance, that I learned real story of the Nutcracker.
Indeed, my mother had the story basically correct. The Nutcracker was about a girl, Clara, who goes to sleep and has some crazy dreams. Meaning: SHE IS NOT ON THE STAGE: SHE IS ASLEEP. There was about four minutes of total stage time.
I was crushed.
The Sugar Plum Fairy, now that was the juicy role. A snowflake would have been an amazing role. (Seriously.)
Every week of rehearsals, my resentment grew. I hated my costume (a long nightgown with a high neck that tickled my ears, sleeves that went down to my wrists – long, because I would not need to open my legs more than 3 inches for the entire thing.) I hated my role. I resented the pretty snowflakes in their beautiful white costumes and long, sweeping jetes, their beautiful pirouettes. All I got to do was hurry on my tiptoes (not even on pointe!) across the stage and look pleased that I got some bullshit nutcracker for Christmas.
If a twelve-year old can be a loose cannon, that was me.
We had a series of performances for a week. With each performance, my resentment grew. I would leave the stage in tears, hating the Real Ballerinas. Finally, the last performance came. I was smart enough to know they could do nothing to me on the last performance (the fact that they could, in fact, eject me from the program never occurred to me.)
There is a scene in the second act, when Clara and the Prince have traveled to the Land of the Sugar Plum Fairy, and Clara is pushed to the margins (again) while the various treats of the Sugar Plum Fairy dance in welcome. Well.
I thought it would be a great idea to reject the tired notion of discipline and scripted performance. And just dance anyway. A little ballet improve never hurt anyone, right?
I was about to start leaping across the stage, when suddenly a sharp pain shot through my ankle. I’d never had a pain like that before, and I have no idea to this day what caused it; I’d not twisted it or anything like that. I nearly yalped out loud. Instead, very calmly, I did exactly what I was supposed to do. I sat down and watched the snowflakes dance.
I think of that event sometimes, and remind myself sometimes a sudden jarring pain can keep you from doing something stupid. It also taught me not to be a showoff – don’t assume just because it’s “about” you, that you have anything to do with the narrative.
I am thinking of this now because it is December, and I am seeing ads for The Nutcracker. As ever Christmas, I must see it. From the plush red seats in the audience, I perform every step in my mind. I am thankful for the discipline of the dancer who loves being Clara.