First Person: ‘Nutcracker’ lives not just on stages, but in families’ hearts

An hour into “The Nutcracker” by the Atlanta Ballet, I looked over at my 3-year-old grandchild, Eleanor Emerson Pratt, and saw her eyes, like two big blue headlights, fixed on the stage, her hand deep in a giant-sized bucket of popcorn.

She wasn’t wriggling. She wasn’t whining. She was transfixed.

The magically growing Christmas tree, the battle between the toy soldier and the rats, the corps de ballet, leaping in the snow, the inimitable melodies of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: She was enraptured. Then, into the second act, she hears the telltale muffled pizzicato from cello and bass signaling one of her favorite scenes, and she says quietly: “Shugah pwum fehwy.”

What a brilliant grandchild you are.

And how lucky we are to be here, at the Fabulous Fox, in our Sunday best, enjoying this strange, delightful rite of Christmas.

RELATED | John McFall’s ‘Nutcracker’ begins its final performance run

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Looking around us, at the mothers and daughters and grandparents and grandchildren (and a few dads), it’s clear that this is a steady tradition for many others. It’s an indulgence and a luxury, but if you live in a city with a world-class ballet company and they perform in a temple of magic like the Fox, isn’t it acceptable to indulge yourself and give yourself license to enjoy them?

And how lucky that Ellie has inherited from her mother the ability to focus on a long-term project.

I don’t know how she does it. I don’t know how they do it. I get antsy at events with an intermission. They stay calm.

Maureen, my wife, is back at home, cooking, or out food shopping, trying to get the house ready for the reunion of our hungry brood. She tries to avoid “Nutcracker” duty. She doesn’t like the parking, the waiting, the long lines to the restrooms at intermission, the possibility of restless children.

But Molly, our oldest, doesn’t remember any of that, and couldn’t wait for the moment when it was time to bring her own oldest to the theater. We had to talk her out of it when Eleanor was only 2.

“Going to the Fox, and all the excitement there, we didn’t go to that part of town that often, so it felt like we were going to a different world,” said Molly as we motored downtown, with her husband, Lane, at the wheel, Eleanor in her car seat. “Part of the story of ‘The Nutcracker’ is being transported to a different place, and this was exactly like that.”

I remember those trips, from some 25 years ago, and I remember my main emotion was probably dread. Usually there was another of Molly’s friends along, and being responsible for more than one child in a crowd of 2,500 was unnerving.

On the other hand, there was the music, which I’d played in orchestras in high school and college, music that made a great season even greater.

Amazingly, Molly and her friends behaved like champs. Molly sealed away a memory that would percolate in the girl and the young woman until she had a chance to relive it in the next generation.

This has happened to plenty of others.

Next to us at the Fox was CNN editor Karan Olson and her daughter Sophie Meilhan, 9. Karan remembers watching productions during her West Coast childhood, and is glad that Atlanta has everything Seattle can offer, so that Sophie can enjoy it too. “This is exactly right,” she said, as the broken nutcracker became a young prince.

Sitting next to Molly, propped up on the child-seat insert provided by the Fox, Ellie was eager for the next moment. They had been reading the “Nutcracker” story, watching videos, and listening to recordings, as a way to prepare the ground for a successful outing. Now she was ready for the payoff. “Where the Russian dancers?” Ellie wanted to know. “Where the Chinese dancers?”

Molly reassured her: “They’re coming.”

RELATED | New dancers, fresh energy at Atlanta Ballet

Christmas traditions come and go. When Molly was little, we took her every year to the Festival of Trees, a nine-day event that took over the Georgia World Congress Center with 3 acres of wild decorations. It dwindled and disappeared, along with the tree lighting at the downtown Rich’s.

Some changes are inevitable. Every Christmas Eve when I was young, my parents took the five of us children to visit an unending string of aging relatives — Little Auntie; Peck and Beth; Uncle Bunny, the list went on. Finally we would stagger back to our grandparents’ house, exhausted, and fall into a deep coma while my parents struggled to assemble toys.

In my adult life, my children and I replaced that practice with a lower-mileage walk around the cul-de-sac, singing raucous carols and demanding figgy pudding.

Now our nest is empty. My choir has gone on to college and marriage and lives elsewhere. And my cul-de-sac has been repopulated with young families with young children — and early bedtimes.

But here’s the Christmas miracle: A new generation pops up, like a shoot from the stump of Jesse. Ellie is ready to jump in and reinvent this party. Little sister Eva appears eager as well, in her own, chubby, nonverbal way.

So here we go. The dance continues. 


“Atlanta Ballet’s Nutcracker”Choreographed by John McFall, check out this version before the company unveils a brand-new “Nutcracker” for 2018. Through Dec. 28. $21.25-$125.25. Fox Theatre, 660 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 1-855-285-8499,

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