Two Sundays ago, I drove up to the Montrose Pavilion for a matinee performance of “The Nutcracker.” This time of year, Tchaikovsky’s beloved fairy-tale ballet is nearly ubiquitous, in danger of stumbling into cliché, like the Grinch or Jimmy Stewart in It’s A Wonderful Life. I have seen “The Nutcracker” in some form probably 40 or 50 times in my life.
And still I had to go; I needed to go. It would be my first “Nutcracker” and first live ballet since my dancer-sister Polly died two years ago.
The Pavilion was packed, sold out. There were dozens of mothers and daughters there. Some of the mothers looked as if they might have been dancers once, or wanted to be. Many of the little girls were obviously taking ballet lessons themselves. There were plenty of old folks, too, and in-betweens.
We had all come to see the amateur company from the Institute of Dancing Arts in Grand Junction, and to hear a live orchestra composed of the Western Slope Sinfonia augmented by 20 music students from the University of Colorado and Denver University. The music soared and the curtain rose on the opulent, 19th-century living room of the fictional Stahlbaum family, decorated to the hilt for Christmas Eve.
I thought back to the lavish New York City Ballet production which runs for something like 22 days and nights around Christmas every year. I saw almost every show one season when Polly was in the corps de ballet of the greatest company in the world and I was a young college grad checking out life in the Big Apple.
As a member of the corps, Polly danced the Waltz of the Flowers in a line with seven or eight other girls. The big solo parts were reserved for principal dancers. If I remember right, the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier were performed by the sumptuous Patricia McBride and the serious, athletic Edward Villela. Polly was not there yet in terms of grown-up presence and polish, but she had lots of time, and I remember thinking that her musicality and her precise, light touch would make her a soloist one day.
The young dancers from Grand Junction made lots of clomping noises on the stage with their hard toe shoes. For the most part they were too young and green to have developed a quiet mastery. But this is not to say they weren’t good. They were wonderful. And well trained. They danced their hearts out, and some of them had enough talent perhaps to pursue careers beyond the Western Slope.
One young woman in particular – she was the conductor’s daughter – had real potential. She danced the Sugar Plum Fairy (and several other roles; lots of costume changes backstage in a small company). I’d guess she was 15 or 16, about the age Polly was when she left southern California for New York. Like Polly she was lovely, very slender and technically solid. Solid enough to make the fiendishly difficult task of standing on point look almost effortless.
As the music swelled for the grand pas de deux in Act II, tears streamed down my face. The gorgeous music alone could do it. But this afternoon it was the music and the innocence, the inexperience of the young leads that pushed me over the edge.
Tchaikovsky’s slow, building Adagio is one of the sexiest, most grown-up in-love dances ever. George Balanchine’s choreography for his stars at City Ballet was the standard stuck in my memory. Here the Institute’s Diane Revie had contrived simpler steps for her young dancers, but true to the music, the choreography nevertheless mirrored a lot of adult feeling, its solemnity and physical tension.
These were just kids going through the movements, too young to really know the ache and stretch. But they were doing it, the big pas de deux, in front of a full house swept along by some of the most exquisite music ever written.
I was crying because these were the roles Polly dreamed of dancing. She did dance some of them before she left home, when she was a big bird on a little pond, as it were. I remember a star turn in “Swan Lake” when she was still a teenager. But she never got to dance the leads in New York, never danced them with the big company as a grown woman.
In New York, she made it, almost, to the top. She danced for the man she worshipped, the brilliant, dictatorial George Balanchine. But Balanchine never singled her out, never picked her out of the corps de ballet to become a soloist, never chose her to be his muse.
Polly got to dance his choreography, got to dance it to the music of Stravinsky and Ravel and Tchaikovsky. But she was always part of a line of girls and boys, mostly in the background, never in the center in the spotlight. And Balanchine lavished most of his genius on the featured dancers.
In New York, after a few years it all started to come apart, very slowly at first, unnoticed by the rest of us, as Polly began the destructive eating habits that would contribute to her premature death. She had the Sugar Plum Fairy inside her. But she never, by the mysteries of fate and her own demons, got to let her out.