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 behavior down pat: "At the end of the dance, you applaud. They've got that nailed down." But other aspects of theater 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.