Surviving the Nutcracker


Hold on to your tutu: It's "Nutcracker" time again. This year, Southern California is hosting a couple of dozen, from local productions to big-time ballet companies.

Such a rich offering presents a terrific opportunity for parents interested in introducing children to ballet. But for parents of young children who get queasy just thinking about a dinner out, the thought of their kids sitting happily through a ballet may seem as unlikely as getting to sleep in on a Saturday.

But veteran ballet-going parents say that even children as young as 3 can enjoy "The Nutcracker" if the parents are willing to do some legwork ahead of time.

"Of course, it depends on the child, but if a kid can sit through a 2-hour video, he or she can sit through a ballet," says Traci Hemmersbach, a South Bay mother whose 6 1/2-year-old son and 3 1/2-year-old daughter will be attending "The Nutcracker" this year with their grandmother.

"To get them ready, my mother-in-law just sent them a book about 'The Nutcracker,' so we've been reading through it so they can get some sense of who the characters are and what's going to happen," she says.

Diane Lauridsen, artistic director for the South Bay Ballet, agrees that anything parents can do to familiarize the child with the ballet--reading a story, playing the music and watching the ballet on tape together--will help make the event more fun for everyone. (Although it's not absolutely faithful to the original choreography, the Pacific Northwest Ballet's "Nutcracker" with sets and costumes designed by children's book author Maurice Sendak is one parent's favorite video choice.)

"Put on the music, let the kid dance around," Lauridsen suggests. "Watch a video of the ballet and talk afterward about the costumes, the scenery, how the characters move.

"Have questions for your kids to think about during the performance, such as who's your favorite character? Who's the silliest character? How would you move if you were that character? Kids also need to know what you expect of them, so talk with them ahead of time about how you behave in the theater--that once the music starts, we sit and listen."

There are also the kid basics. Encourage naps before the performance. Dinner out beforehand may be too much sitting; instead, feed kids a meal at home. Select seats by the aisle. Hemmersbach also advises parents to get seats where you sit close enough to see the stage really well. "Kids are much more likely to sit through a performance if they really feel part of it," she says.

If a child gets too wiggly, be willing to walk out to the lobby for 10 minutes of spinning around. For intermission, bring easy, low-mess snacks such as raisins, juice in a snap-close sipping cup, bagels in Ziploc bags.

Parents may also want to talk with their kids about the ballet's potentially scary moments. "There can be some intimidating moments in the ballet for small children," says Linda Muggeridge, a music teacher and mother of two who suggests kids be at least 5 before embarking on their first ballet.

"It's dark in the theater when the performance begins and that can be a little frightening if you're not prepared for it. Also, during the ballet, there's the Christmas tree that gets really big and the sword battle between the king of the mice and the Nutcracker, which, depending on how it's staged can be kind of scary.

"Also, the story line can be a little confusing," she says. "Kids should know that the first part of the ballet is a story, but the second part is just a show for Clara and her friends." She also suggests packing supplies for a few quiet activities, such as a note pad and crayons so kids can draw if they start getting antsy during the performance.

Perhaps most essential, parents need to make peace with the fact that going with kids will be a different kind of evening than it would be if you went with only other adults. While it may not be relaxing, it can be fun. And watching all those little kids spinning in the lobby during intermission--that alone can be worth the price of a ticket.


"The Nutcracker" returns, in rather untraditional and classic forms. See Calendar.

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