Words, Emotions, and Mikko Nissinen’s The Nutcracker

This morning, I woke up thinking about the ballet. Which, I grant you, was a little weird.

I’m not one of those numerous ex-ballet girls. I know many–there are three in my academic department alone, girls that danced until they were twelve or sixteen or left for college. Girls that learned so young to do things I can’t even imagine. I always watch to see if they move differently.  Is she more graceful than most? Is her posture better than mine? Could she still stand on her toes?

I wanted to be a ballerina for about half a minute when I was little. I had a jewelry box—the one every young girl has—with a tiny pink ballerina slowly revolving with only her mirror for company. But that was more than half a lifetime ago. So to wake up thinking about the ballet? Unpredictable, to say the least.

In December, my guy took me to see Mikko Nissinen’s The Nutcracker at the Boston Ballet. It was basically the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen. It was performed at the Boston Opera House, a decadently elaborate theater that opened in 1928 but seems half a century older. It is beautiful, all gilt and enamel and glittering chandeliers and miles of reflections.

We went to a matinee the day after I arrived in Boston, to sort of kick off our holiday celebrations. Since it was afternoon, there were dozens of little girls in tutus and ballet buns and paper crowns from the production, chattering and flittering during the intermission and watching, entranced and huge-eyed, during the acts.

Which I barely noticed because my eyes were huge as well. Mikko Nissinen’s production was “traditional.” It was not a reimagined nutcracker; every scene could have appeared as an illustration in a children’s book from a hundred years ago.

And yet.

Within that framework of this story that we all know so well, there were details and humorous moments and tiny delights that made it fresh, though familiar. My favorite scene was the very Victorian Christmas party at the beginning. Each of the pairs of dancers interacted with each other and the group as a whole as if they were truly individuals in couples with particular children. An elderly couple in the corner squabbled and then made up, a young boy continually returned to his father for help with his tie, Clara’s mother—the hostess—frequently retreated to the wings to check on dinner preparations. The level of detail was completely entrancing and so well done that words weren’t even missed.

I think that’s the first time I really got  it. What people see in the ballet. It wouldn’t be better with words or subtitles. That’s not the point. It’s about (and this is basic, so bear with me) enacted emotions.   Breaking down that division of private and public. Making the interior, exterior.

Before, I’d always gotten caught up in the physicality of it. Bodies, as bodies. I bet she lives on tuna and lettuce. And Gracious! Someone should talk to him about those tights. Which, I grant you, is akin to urging fig leaves at a museum, but a background of body-shaming fundamentalism is sometimes hard to shake. This was something else entirely. Bodies were there, of course, but they were somehow secondary—or more precisely, completely a part of, but not the focus of, in —the action.

And that seems sort of revolutionary.

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