Visions of sugar plums

Special to The Times

Inside every person lurks a secret performance dream, a wish, a longing so dark you dare not even sing its name out in the shower, as even the shower would recoil. For instance, few of my closest friends would guess that inside me lives a brilliant, whirling Gelsey Kirkland. True, said hummingbird-sized Balanchine ballerina happens to be covered in many layers -- some Trader Joe’s brie here, some X-Large Costco sweatpants there ....Some might argue, seeing me from behind, that it’s less like I am Gelsey Kirkland than that I ate Gelsey Kirkland....

But no matter. Now that Christmas is once again in the air -- or at least, on our shopping mall sound systems -- and the “Nutcracker” begins its annual plink-plink-plinking across our cerebral cortexes with its fairy sprite footsteps, it’s boom time for ballet. We balletomanes are coming out of the closet. And yet, as some of us get ready to take our children to their first “Nutcracker....” Well, we love it, and we want them to love it, but like fireworks, or candy (both of which I’ve seen featured in “Nutcracker” productions), as responsible 21st century parents we do feel cautious. Are there prescribed rules to “Nutcracker” use? Child-safe guidelines? Pediatrician-approved standards?

Never mind the swelling Christmas tree, the gleeful rats, the boys with guns. Even the “Nutcracker” plot -- what little there is -- is famously troublesome. The values, for girls, are terrible! Being saved by a prince. Being spied on by a weird puppet-maker uncle. Did I mention the candy -- dancing candy? (Although I should note for feminists that in “Barbie Nutcracker,” the new Barbie collaborates with the prince on defeating the Mouse King. Barbie efficiently co-manages the rescue.)

Even worse, what if our daughters, sitting rapt in the theater, fall under ballet’s spell? What if they want to grow up to be ballerinas? Think anorexia! Body image dysmorphia! A total lack of heterosexual men! Cigarettes! (Wasn’t that the standard diet in Gelsey Kirkland’s biography? Tab and cigarettes?)


You know what I say to that? It’s Christmas! Let them freak out! Because look at me: I myself was a teen ballet freak and I survived. Even more amazing, I was a teen ballet freak in Los Angeles, and well....

You must picture Southern California in the ‘70s to truly appreciate the Don Quixotian/Fitzcarraldo-ian/insert-other-heroic-metaphor-of-wild-futil ity-here nature of this feat. Snap on blinding sun. Rustle the palm trees. Cue Wings music....Ready?

I am a seventh-grader at Malibu Park Junior High School. It’s not going well. Chinese-German, I look vaguely Hispanic: My Danzig-born mother has a tendency to send my sister and me to school in “Heidi of the Alps"-type dirndls and clogs. (My brother’s closet includes lederhosen and, yes, a Tyrolean hat.) I stab out in rebellion, demand my mother make me bell-bottoms from a Butterick pattern -- horizontal stripes across the butt, rope belt, modified ‘fro, and out the door I go! With my viola.

You think you had problems in junior high school? Think the abyss was too yawning between you and the popular kids? Because this is Malibu (my father is an engineer at Hughes Research labs), realize that my actual schoolmates, right around this time, include Kristy McNichol, Rob Lowe, Emilio Estevez and Sean Penn. Who were all cool even then and, what’s worse, seemingly quite well-adjusted.

For instance, today we think of Sean Penn as a brilliant thespian maverick whose black turtleneck barely contains the soul of simmering malcontent. He might suddenly punch out even James Lipton during a hush-toned retrospective of his oeuvre on Bravo’s “Inside the Actors Studio” ... perhaps saving the rest of us the trouble.

Not then. At Malibu Park, the record shows that Sean Penn was class vice president, functioning member of our student council and even enthusiastic creator of our annual surfing contest. Glimpsing the popular Mr. Penn occasionally across the quad, I would describe his mien as “sunny.”

The gigantic disconnect between Malibu Park and myself comes to a head when, at our school’s first “computer dance,” the shuddering IBM matches me with Chad McQueen. Son of Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw. Who does not show. Maybe he was just busy skateboarding, but still, don’t you think? That was mean.

Potentially explosive union

Perhaps there’s another reason. Perhaps, like the Montagues and Capulets, Chad felt our families were too different and that our union would have proved explosive yet tragic. Think about it: Chad’s father is Steve McQueen, my father is an eccentric Chinese engineer most famous for doing handstands on the beach in his holey underpants. His mother is Ali MacGraw, my 5-foot-11 German mother roasts tongue and yodels.

It is only in our living room, after school, where I can make sense of it -- the crazy patchwork of teen life. I make a skirt out of a bedsheet and dance wildly to records -- “The Sound of Music,” “Hungarian Dances,” “Giselle.” Particularly the Mad Scene. What awkward teen cannot relate to that Mad Scene? Everyone in the village who has betrayed you now stands frightened, frozen in a semicircle as, bathed in a follow spot, you get your revenge....Careening around, hair a glamorous mess, enumerating everyone’s crimes against you in violent dance language -- I hate you, you, you, you, you! -- and then dying so dramatically the curtain itself collapses, possibly the whole theater.

I loved the drama of it all, and the misfit people ... the equally ballet-mad, in the Southern California sun. At the Sheila Rosann School of Dance in Chatsworth. The Mahri School of Dance in Santa Monica. The Joey Harris Studio on Montana. (As touchstones, think two words: “kimono” and “monkey.”) The Los Angeles Junior Ballet and wild-eyed Irina Kosmovska. My mother at the Shrine. Bolshoi ballet, sold out, no problem! Braving summer heat in winter coat, she scalped five (separate) tickets for our family. I got lost for an hour, but it was magical, and makes me think: Ballet 4-ever! Because, for true fans, ballet is us.

Sandra Tsing Loh is a writer-performer based in Los Angeles. She is appearing in her show “Sugar Plum Fairy,” which opens on Wednesday at the Geffen Playhouse.