Saturday, January 3, 2015

Becoming a Ballerina

This post should have been written at least two weeks ago.  I had intended to put it up around the time we actually went to The Nutcracker, but, like many people, I suspect, the holidays seem to have passed by in a blur of holiday traditions and wrapping paper.  I am just now getting back into my regular routines, writing being one of them.  I'm looking forward to spending 2015 with all of you!

Here in Helena we are lucky to have two ballet companies who each offer productions of The Nutcracker during the holiday season.  And because Helena is also a fairly small town, we knew dancers in both of the productions.  We ended up going to the production that was scheduled the weekend before Christmas.  Frances and Gloria have a friend who was in that Nutcracker, and they were so excited to see her perform!  It was very fun to see her and recognize her up on stage, and the whole event lit my girls up with its magic.

Like most families, we have lots of Christmas traditions.  One of my favorite traditions is wrapping twenty-five holiday books up before December first each year.  Then Frances and Gloria alternate opening a book each night to read.  We have many versions of The Nutcracker, so the girls are very familiar with the story.  But this was Gloria's first time attending The Nutcracker, and Frances had only been one other time two years ago.  I was interested to see what the experience of seeing the ballet in person would be like for them.  Would they be bored or confused by the lack of words?  Would they be able to follow the plot?  As we walked back to our car after the ballet was over, I knew my worries were for nothing.  Both girls twirled happily through the snow, declaring what role they would play next year - despite the fact that neither has ever taken a lesson!

Because they've never had a lesson, Frances and Gloria have no idea of the work and hours of practice that go into each production of The Nutcracker.  I have to admit that I had only a very general idea myself.  These days, I only see The Nutcracker through a mother's eyes.  The mother of the girls' friend told me about all of the practices (we often scheduled playdates around practice on the weekends), and I knew it took quite a bit of family commitment.

But all of the drive, focus and commitment was revealed through Becoming a Ballerina: A Nutcracker Story.  Fiona, the main dancer featured in this narrative, has been cast as one of the Claras for the Boston Ballet's version of The Nutcracker.  Because it's the Boston Ballet, and to make things easier for the dancers, there are multiple casts - 247 performers in all!  The book introduces Fiona at auditions for the ballet.  Fiona is the middle child in a family of three sisters, and all of them are auditioning.  The auditions are long and arduous.  Each girl must learn a series of steps for each set of roles, and recreate them perfectly.  There are also a series of callbacks before dancers are notified.  Fiona gets the part of Clara, and each of her sisters gets a role also. 

Once they've celebrated their good fortune in getting cast, it is time to start the work.  The performers only have two months to learn everything.  There are many, many practices with long hours expected of them.  There aren't just the steps to learn, but Fiona must also discover Clara for herself, so she can bring Clara to life for everyone who attends her performances.  It's fascinating to see what Fiona learns, and how her version of Clara is slightly different from the other Claras who are cast.  The choreographer, Ms. Atkins, works with all of the Claras, both together and individually, to make sure their performances are the same, but with their own personality or strengths included.  "' How are you getting into your last arabesque?' she asks me.  Ms. Atkins is trying to get us to put the movements together so they mean more than just steps, so they look like a mini-performance." (p. 17)  There are many, many hours spent in the ballet studio.  For example, on November 21st, the company is performing their first run-through of the ballet.  Fiona notes "We've been at the studio since eleven o'clock this morning, and now it's almost two. ...Run-throughs take longer than the actual performance because we have to go over parts that need corrections, work on spacing, and have breaks.  All the Claras and Fritzes are required to attend all run-throughs with the company." (p. 23).

As I mentioned about the ballet company in Helena, there is also a huge family commitment to the show.  Fiona talks about her mother (who, remember, has three dancers in the cast!).  "She never complains about the hours she spends in the car everyday, driving us back and forth from school to ballet to home.  And on top of that, she teaches piano." (p. 20)  Fiona mentions school several times, and it must be a challenge to keep up with homework during this season.  "I have lots of good friends at the ballet school, but it's different with my regular school friends.  I don't get to hang out after school or on weekends, because I'm always in class or rehearsal..." (p. 20).  Fiona also tells another dancer that her mother had to wake her up at three in the morning because they had forgotten to set her hair in curlers the night before.  There are an amazing amount of details that go into getting everything just right.

Frances, Gloria and I first read this book about a year ago, and one of the things that stuck with me was Fiona's worry that she wouldn't hit the Mouse King with her slipper during the Battle scene.  It was so fun to see it take place on our stage and I let out a sigh of relief when our Clara's slipper actually did hit the Mouse King.  I had never thought about how tricky that might be before, but I had a new appreciation for it.  And on opening night, Fiona also hits the Mouse King! Whew!

This book is much more picture book nonfiction than some of the other books I review.  I prefer my nonfiction to have lots of back matter - this title doesn't have any, but I could see where it would be nice to have some.  I would have loved to have a glossary of ballet terms, perhaps with drawings of each movement.  I would have also liked to see some information about which version of The Nutcracker was performed by the Boston Ballet.  But that isn't the purpose of this book.  The book is structured as a narrative, and it works very well.  You see everything through Fiona's eyes, and she has a very likable, readable voice.  The authors are able to get quite a bit of detail about ballet and Fiona's life into this narrative.  We learn so much about the requirements of this particular ballet, as well as how the Boston Ballet prefers to produce it.  It is also interesting to see how Fiona continues to improve and learn throughout the two months.

The book is illustrated with lots and lots of photographs.  It helps add to the feeling that this is Fiona's diary - you get to see her practice, spend time with her sisters and friends, watch her at home and in performances.  The costumes are glorious, and the whole book makes you feel like you really know Fiona.

This book is a fun addition to our collection of Nutcrackers.  I can't wait to read it again with Frances and Gloria now that we have seen the ballet this year.  I'd recommend it to any of you who have children who are as eager to begin lessons as mine are!

Becoming a Ballerina: A Nutcracker Story starring the dancers of Boston Ballet.  Lise Friedman & Mary Dowdle.  Viking, 2012.

sent by the publisher for review

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