Gianna danced in the Nutcracker this year at Rosecliff. She was a mouse and in the second act, a gingerbread. Both her mother Angela and her aunt Meg danced in Nutcracker for years with Festival Ballet at the Providence Performing Arts Center when we lived there: angels, soldiers, friends of Clara and other roles I may be forgetting. Rosecliff is a much smaller venue, a museum, not a theatre: smaller audiences and more intimate. We followed the dancers around the building for the first act with the family Christmas gathering and gift of the nutcracker in the dining room, snow fairies in the ballroom, the introduction and battle on the signature heart shaped main stairway in the rotunda. The dancers were close to us; we were nearly part of the set. The gleam of perspiration and the pumping of their diaphragms were visible after their splendid exertions, even as their faces held their smiles.
Rosecliff is one of the Newport mansions on fabled Bellevue Avenue with the Cliff Walk overlooking Easton’s Beach running behind it. Commissioned in the gilded age at the turn of the twentieth century by “Tessie” Fair Oelrich of the Nevada Comstock silver lode Fairs and her husband, shipping tycoon Herman Oelrich, it was designed by the infamous Stanford White of New York, architect for Penn Station and the second Madison Square Gardens. Rosecliff is the frequent site of society weddings still and its ballroom has been featured in films and television including the Robert Redford “Great Gatsby,” “27 Dresses” and “Amistad.”
Nutcracker is performed each year by the Island Moving Company of Newport where Gianna takes her lessons. Angela, mother of our four beautiful granddaughters, still dances in classes, but has no time for performances. Because of the small venue, the tickets are expensive and there are two casts with eight performances each. Pete and Angela told Gianna that because of the cost, participating in the cast would be the main gift of her Christmas this year; she readily agreed. What she did not know was that the tickets for her parents would also be their gifts to one another. With that and the many rehearsals, extra expenses along the way and the eight back and forth trips for the performances, it was a major time commitment for the family. They readily agreed as well.
For all of that, Gianna each time was enthusiastic, smiled constantly, danced with energy and trained diligently. She brought tears to the eyes of her parent and grandparents. When she finally wound down from her excitement after evening shows, Peter and I set up a mattress in our downstairs office; she camped out and slept in a bit as her noisy sisters awoke at 6 AM.
“Our hearts grow tender with childhood memories and love of kindred, and we are better throughout the year for having, in spirit, become a child again at Christmas-time.” Laura Ingalls Wilder
The choreography was joyful and deft. There have been much darker performances that we’ve seen with scary Rat Queens and Drosselmeyers. The IMC production is jubilant, elevating and a perfect beginning to the Christmas celebrations in the first week of Advent.
The principal dancers were professional, talented and well-practiced; their credentials in companies across Europe, Asia and North America were impressive for such a small group. Each danced several major roles – Frau Oelrich was the Sugar Plum Fairy. All of them had other jobs; dancing in other companies, choreographers, owners of studios. I expect none of them is getting rich for all the years of study, the punishment to their bodies, the commitment to the art, yet they continue. For the art, for the beauty, for the music, for the sheer joy of it.
The music alone commends the art to us, and for Rita, Pete, Angela and me, was well worth the time and treasure to expose our children to such things. For as one of our favorite writers, Anthony Esolen, makes clear: if the mind is exposed to beauty and truth expressed in beauty, that formed mind is better able to discern the coarse from the sublime, the human achievement from the dross, the excellent from the mediocre, that which lifts the spirit from that which burdens it. That mind seeks beauty and is repulsed by the multitude of ugliness they will confront in their lifetime.
When a child has heard Tchaikovsky and Puccini, she has no love of rapping. When she has wandered at leisure in the galleries of Renoir’s and Caravaggio’s, she cannot abide black velvet Elvis. When she has read Yeats or Shakespeare or for that matter Laura Ingalls Wilder, she will be able to better separate the wheat from the chaff, the light from the darkness.
Christmas is first about Jesus, but it is also about light and beauty and the soaring of the spirit and soul. For that, The Nutcracker is a good start.
“Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before! What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store. What if Christmas…perhaps…means a little bit more!” The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, Dr. Seuss