So my son Zane appeared in his first ballet. He was a soldier in a local production of “The Nutcracker”. And just like how having a vegetarian girlfriend makes Jules Winnfield pretty much a vegetarian as well, having a kid in a ballet pretty much makes me a ballet watcher.
As such, the following is my objective review and viewer’s guide of “The Nutcracker” from the perspective of someone who’s never seen a ballet, worn a monocle, attended a fox hunt, or had occasion to unironically utter the phrase “well I never.”
First off, two things should be noted about the adult dancers in a ballet, and I use the term “adult dancer” advisably, considering what I am about to say. Number one, they’re all pretty good looking. And number two, they all wear tights. And not much else. That is to say, the men might don costumes of some sort, but all the hems stop just shy of the nethers. The women wear what could generously be called skirts, but they look more like those old-timey ruff collars you see in paintings of kings. Other than that, for the men and women alike, it’s just tights and a whole lot of unmistakable biology. This means that, regardless of what shade of the rainbow of genders you might fall into, you’ll find yourself at least curiously diverted throughout the show.
The really strange thing about this is that no one talks about it. And if you bring it up yourself, thinking you’ll be the brave one to mention what everyone else is thinking (perhaps with a complimentary appraisal of the Rat King’s “dance belt”) you’ll find it’s considered bad taste.
A lot of things are considered bad taste at the ballet. More on that later.
At any rate, I’m pretty shocked that this attire passed muster back in the prude ages, but maybe that was the point and the dancing was just there to give the performers an excuse to be on stage. Sort of like how people “read the articles” in Playboy.
Gives “high culture” a whole new perspective, I admit.
Anyway, here’s a tip for first timers to any ballet: pretend you are the only human in attendance at a dog whistle concert. If the rest of the audience starts to applaud, just applaud along with them. You aren’t going to know why, and that’s all right. Trust the audience. Clap lightly. Don’t overdo it. Standing up and pumping your fist is frowned upon, literally.
So, The Nutcracker begins with what looks like a party scene at the richest house in the old-timey world. There are butlers and maids and scullery urchins scrambling all over the place, as overseen imperiously by the Lord and Lady of the house (I know these terms because I once overheard a conversation about Downton Abbey– absorbing culture wherever you can is another helpful tip). There are children here and there, and more of them appear as guests arrive at the party. A lot of air-kisses happen at this point. And here we meet the main focus of the story, a girl named Clara. I only know this because the program tells me.
That’s another thing about ballet: no one says anything, ever, leaving the viewer to figure out what’s happening via guesswork, secret glances at the program, and constantly asking the people around you what’s going on.
The latter, unfortunately, is also frowned upon.
Clara, being the star of the show (along with the Nutcracker himself, who is yet to appear) is fawned over by everyone. She dances around a bit and everyone looks on adoringly.
Then, a grown man shows up wearing a cape. The cape might raise your hopes, but trust me: this isn’t Batman. This man is apparently a sort of magical, mysterious Uncle with an adoring eye on Clara. In our production, he was a wee bit on the plump side, wore a white powdered wig, and moved around the stage like a stork playing hopscotch. He was surely meant to give off an air of worldly-wise charm and doting mystery. It is imperative that you cling to this perception, no matter how much he might instead come across as the sort of creepy bachelor Uncle who has way too much candy in his pockets and an unhealthy fixation on children.
The uncle gives Clara a wooden nutcracker. This is received as a marvellous gift rather than, as might be expected, a kitchen tool for preparing nuts. The Nutcracker is shown proudly around the room. The Nutcracker is painted to look like a soldier with extremely prominent teeth and jarringly bulging eyes. Some nuts are cracked. Children actually fight over the nuts.
People dance. This happens a lot.
Soon enough (although not soon enough) everyone leaves. The lights dim, indicating night, and Clara takes the Nutcracker to bed with her. Creepy Uncle Magic Cape (not his actual name) appears in Clara’s bedroom. Again, this is not presented as cause for alarm, a fact that seems to offer far more social commentary about life in Victorian times than the writers may have intended. Creepy Uncle Magic Cape slips the Nutcracker from Clara’s sleeping arms, performs some sort of magic spell on it, and then places it back in her bed.
Again, this is not presented as cause to ring up the local constabulary, and suggesting so will not endear you to your fellow audience members.
Next, a whole load of rats scurries into view. Clara’s bedroom is overrun by them. The King of the Rats waves a scimitar. Clara awakens in terror and attempts to escape, but the elements of her bedroom slide mysteriously off-stage, left and right, leaving her in a nightmare of swarming rats. Fairly dark stuff, here. Fortunately for Clara, the Nutcracker comes alive. UNfortunately for your ability to sleep ever again, he still has monstrously prominent grinning teeth and the sort bulging painted eyes that say “I am tortured by this curse you call life”.
The Nutcracker attacks the Rat King. A contingent of soldiers appears, one of whom is twelve and devastatingly handsome and looks a lot like a young version of me. He is a tour de force and completely steals the show, even if, inexplicably, this is not one of those moments that the audience begins to spontaneously applaud. The dashing young soldier with the extremely awesome father performs his part expertly, bringing the viewers to tears of joy if they know anything about anything, and then, even when his part is over, the performance for some reason continues to go on and everyone gets extremely bored and starts checking the time on their phone every few minutes.
The Nutcracker has apparently saved Clara from the rats and now, to celebrate, they watch some dancing. I, of course, watch Clara and the Nutcracker, since they are the stars of the story. A bunch of lady dancers flit about, doing their thing, and if your performance is half-way decent, there will be snow falling all around them. You’ll wonder how the dancers manage not to get the fake snow in their eyes. If you watch closely, some of them probably will.
And then the curtain comes down and the house lights come back up.
Do not get your hopes up! The ballet is not over. This is called an intermission and it usually lasts about ten minutes. Ours lasted more like twenty, until an announcer’s voice spoke up, informing us that they were having technical issues and that they apologized for the delay. I commented knowledgeably to the people around me that the “technical issue” required that a tremendous amount of blood be sprayed off the stage. This was frowned upon.
Eventually the curtain went up again and the performance resumed.
A series of dances occurred, each one apparently themed after nationalistic stereotypes. There was a sequence with some female dancers dressed like Jasmine from Aladdin. This was followed by half a dozen dancers dressed like an all-female mariachi band. Eventually, a guy in drag appeared on-stage wearing an enormous powdered wig and an even more enormous hoop skirt. He looked a bit like a cartoon version of Marie Antoinette, so I assumed this was supposed to represent France. He flipped up his skirt and eight children scampered out. The children danced, and then were collected again under the man’s hoop skirt.
Helpful hint: if you learned anything from your observation about Creepy Uncle Magic Cape, you will assume that, in Victorian times, it is not considered strange or unhealthy for a man in drag to harbour up to a dozen children under his skirt. Perhaps it was the best way to keep him or the children warm. Perhaps homeless children regularly gathered under hoop skirts, unbeknownst to the wearers, as a form of temporary housing. Consider this an anthropologically interesting observation rather than another reason to summon the old-timey equivalent of Child Protective Services.
Clara and the Nutcracker observe all of this with avid interest, seated on a small throne. As the main characters of the story, I made sure to keep my focus on them, despite the temptation to let my attention wander to the dancers. Clearly this was intended by the writers to be a test of the audience’s devotion to Clara’s story. I did not mean to disappoint them, or be disappointed.
It did become apparent, however, that the story, as it were, occurred exclusively in the first half of the performance. As Clara and the Nutcracker looked on, more and more dances sprang up before them. This went on for quite some time, and I began to suspect that they were repeating some of the same dances again and again. Helpful hint: this is not what is happening, and it will not be considered helpful for you to interrupt the ballet to suggest that the dancers check their programs.
The performance did, eventually, end. Clara and the Nutcracker watched everything until, finally, they arose from their throne. Having been paying very close attention to them the entire time, I was gratified that their story was picking up again. The Nutcracker produced a small gilded sleigh, which he pushed over to Clara. She climbed into it and the Nutcracker began to push it slowly off stage. Clara waved extravagantly back to the dancers, all of whom were gathered on the other side of the stage, and the dancers waved extravagantly back.
I waited. Would Clara wake up again, finding that the entire sequence had been a dream? Would the Nutcracker still be alive? Would Creepy Uncle Magic Cape still be there, having watched her in her sleep all night long, as any good and not at all sick and twisted Uncle apparently did back in Old Timey times?
No, actually. The curtain came down and the performance was over. And that’s when I realized: Clara hadn’t been sleeping at all. This was probably an hallucination brought on by the ravages of some fatal Victorian disease. Scurvy, perhaps? Or rickets? Either way, the final goodbye was not the Nutcracker escorting poor Clara out of dreamland but into the cold embrace of her own doom.
Dark, dark stuff! Especially for a cheery Christmas tradition. And yet, it put everything else into perfect perspective.
This downer of a realization, however, was immediately interrupted by the curtain call. As the stage lights came back up, all the adult dancers pranced onto stage again. As one, they bowed. The audience applauded. Then, groups of two or three performers came forward at a time. These bowed again. The audience continued to applaud. Then, the performers gathered in long line at the front of the stage. They bowed. The audience applauded some more.
“Bring out the kids!” somebody, probably not me, shouted. After all, when someone is forced by the ballet company that asked their son to be in their performance to sell ten tickets at thirty bucks a pop, it seems reasonable to assume that, conservatively, exactly one hundred percent of the people attending are there primarily to see the kid whose parents sold them the ticket.
The adult dancers bowed again. The audience applauded some more.
“Bring out the kids!” somebody who sounded suspiciously like me shouted.
They did not bring out the kids. The adult dancers bowed several dozen more times. Helpful hint: if you stop applauding and glare at the stage with unbridled scorn, no one will notice. At the ballet, being frowned upon only goes one way.
After the show, the adult performers went backstage to do whatever they do between performances.
I went down to the room where the young performers were being corralled until the next show, scheduled for two hours later. Several dozen other parents were there as well, gathered just outside the doors of the room, which had newspaper taped over all the windows to hide the children in their various stages of costumage. I assumed all the other parents were also there to heap praise and glory upon the dashing young soldier who had so stolen the show in the middle of the first half. Unfortunately, the “director” (those are scorn quotes) had determined that no one could see that soldier between performances (or, incidentally, any of the other child performers).
My attempt to start a riot petered out fairly quickly. Helpful hint: loudly suggesting how much more awesome your kid was than all the others will not garner a lot of support for your riot attempt, regardless of how true such an assessment may seem to you.
Last Saturday, while out driving with my son in St. Peters, Missouri, I passed a billboard. You may have heard about it, because it (and a few others like it) have since appeared in some typically screechy and shrill news articles. The billboard showed a little girl in a Santa hat accompanied by the words “All I want for Christmas is to SKIP CHURCH. I’m too old for fairy tales.”
Somewhat understandably, the Christian response to this billboard has been angrier than Rachel Maddow on a lesbian blind date with Ann Coulter. I’m a Christian, too, and I sort of get it. But is it possible that we are looking at this from entirely the wrong perspective? The following are three reasons why the atheist billboards might actually be a good thing.
3. Belief Requires Proselytizing.
Glenn Beck, on his radio show, responded to the atheist billboards by saying “why can’t we all just leave each other alone?” Good Libertarian words, there. And yet this is the same Glenn Beck who spends each Easter performing what amounts to a radio drama of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. This is less what could be called “leaving each other alone” and more what we’d have to classify as “proselytization”.
And there’s a good reason for that. Even famed atheist (and, admittedly, one of my favorite peoples) Penn Jillette understands the idea that religious belief requires proselytization:
“How much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize? How much do you have to hate somebody to believe everlasting life is possible and not tell them that?”
Christians have beliefs involving life and death and therefore are (or should be) engaged in trying to persuade others of them. But it doesn’t just count for religious beliefs. If a person deeply believes in anything that involves important human consequences, then it is absolutely essential to that belief that they attempt to persuade others of its validity.
Atheists don’t believe in God (or so they say) but they do have important, defining beliefs. Their belief is that the influence of religion is overwhelmingly negative to human culture, leading to wars, genocide, bigotry, anti-intellectualism, and even climate change. Whether you agree with their beliefs or not, these are very important claims. We can’t blame them if they, like us, feel a strong compulsion to proselytize for what they perceive as the good of humanity. In fact, they absolutely should do so.
And there’s an important component that people of all beliefs should recognize: a rising tide of liberty lifts all ideological boats. The more atheists (and Muslims, and Scientologists, and even Satanists) appear in the public eye to proselytize their belief, the more freedom Christians can enjoy to respond in kind. This is a good thing for everyone. Which leads us to…
2. Engagement is Better Than Indifference.
Imagine someone approaching you on the street intent on converting you to Tooth Fairyism. Would you respond with an expensive mocking billboard about how silly the Tooth Fairy is? If so, congratulations on holding a decades-long grudge for that toothbrush you got under your pillow instead of the folding money you were hoping for.
The fact is, we don’t care enough to hate or oppose what we perceive as pointless, fringe ideologies. If we choose to engage in opposing a belief system, it’s because we view it, positively or negatively, as important, relevant, and worthy of debate. No matter which side one is on in that debate, the debate should be welcome, because it allows an opportunity for persuasion.
Have you ever wondered why these atheist billboards only seem to appear in America? There are no news stories about inflammatory atheist billboards in Europe, for example. Why? Because to be blunt, Europeans don’t care enough to oppose Christianity. Christianity has been on the wane there for decades (it was apparently replaced by Hasselhoffism). They don’t hate God any more than you hate leprechauns. It’s a non-issue. They are indifferent. Try to start a conversation about the Bible with a typical French or Belgian or German young person and you probably won’t get an angry atheist tirade. You’ll likely just get yawning indifference.
By contrast, atheists in America always seem like angry teenagers slamming their bedroom door and shouting “I hate you!” at their parents. Their very anger and forcefulness about the issue implies a degree of engagement that, frankly, Christians should welcome. At least they are involved in the debate.
Indifference is a far harder nut to crack than angry engagement. And that’s why…
1. Christians Should Welcome the Challenge.
The atheist billboard basically challenges that God is a fairy tale, Jesus was just a man, and there is no such thing as heaven. These are questions laid out to be confronted within our culture. Are Christians unable to respond? Are we so weak in our faith that the very asking of a tough (or not so tough, really) question makes us splutter with impotent anger?
The problem with a lot of Christians is that they don’t know why they believe what they believe. Since they don’t know for themselves, they have no way of responding to those who demand an answer. This isn’t just counter-productive, it’s unbiblical. The Bible doesn’t say “angrily complain on Facebook about anyone who confronts you with tough questions.” It says “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” Furthermore, it says to do so with “gentleness and respect”.
respect was when he confronted the church.
So maybe we shouldn’t be angry at the challenges demanded by the atheist billboards. Maybe we should welcome the questions they pose in the public’s mind and be prepared to answer. Because there are answers. Maybe we should seek them out for ourselves first. Maybe we should get familiar with that famed intellect of the Christian faith, C. S. Lewis. To the atheist challenge, he wouldn’t have said “how dare they!? Pass the Chik-Fil-A!” He’d have said “You ask an important question: how do we know God? Is the Bible truly a fairy tale? Would a little girl actually say such things in a letter to a magical gift-elf? There are answers to these questions, so I am glad you asked…”
The bottom line is this: how can we Christians be angry at people for doubting a God they haven’t experienced yet? How can we be mad at them for spreading their idea of the truth while demanding our right to spread ours?
If, when confronted publicly with atheist ideology, we Christians respond with anger and spite instead of welcoming the challenge and responding with respect (and even a little humor) then we are wimps and no one should listen to us anyway.
Put THAT in your letter to Santa.
First, some mild credentials.
I live in St. Louis. Remember when the protesters shut down the Highway 44 Grand exit on the night of the Darren Wilson non-indictment?? That’s how we take our son to school. I am not clueless to the history of tense race relations in this city, or America in general. I am sympathetic to the discussion about systemic racism. As a video game developer, I directly addressed that very issue in my last game, wherein a black female character is hopelessly confronted with ingrained American prejudice. (And as a bonus, she proves to be the hero, ultimately rescuing the male player character. Take THAT #gamergate! Also: spoiler.)
With that out of the way, let me state unequivocally from the top: the following isn’t addressed to black protesters.
I respect your frustration. It absolutely isn’t my place to dictate to you how to express your frustration, your anger, your struggle. My only job right now is to listen to you and try to understand. I will humbly shut my mouth except to ask questions and seek to do what I can to help make the world a better place in whatever small way I can.
No, the following is addressed to the white protesters. I know and really like many of you. I’ve encountered a lot more of you around town. First off, sincerely: good for you! It’s important to stand up for others.
And yet, as much as I hate to admit it, and despite my best, most ardent efforts… you’ve lost me. Argh! I just can’t deny it an longer! As a friend online said the other day, you’ve jumped the shark.
Here’s the bald truth: I’m actually further away from understanding the cause of systemic racism now than I was before you started. I am dismayed by this, but it’s just true.
And I’m not alone.
So this is for you. If you really and truly care about the issue of race in America (and I believe you do) then it seriously behooves you to consider the actual outcome of your involvement (unless you are just too righteously angry or enjoy hating people like me too much. If that’s the case, do carry on. You’re having the desired effect).
Otherwise, this is my perhaps lame attempt to illustrate the outcome white Ferguson protesters are having on the other whiteys out there. Let’s imagine a scenario where the entire white population of America is distilled down to two people, a white protester and a regular white citizen.
The Protester says, hey, cops kill black people and there aren’t any consequences. Systemic racism is a thing.
Citizen Whitey: Ok, really? That’s a pretty shocking issue. Do you have some data to back this up?
Protester: Here’s an Upworthy story about a black man killed by a white cop. Join the protest now.
Citizen Whitey (reads the article): I’m sympathetic but this article is just one example, and the facts are a little fuzzy. It looks like it was an accident, or the guy was resisting arrest, or he actually attacked the cop. Do you have any broad data on the subject?
[Protester lies down in front of the citizen and dies.]
Citizen Whitey: What are you doing?
Protester: I’m having a die-in to raise awareness of this important issue.
Citizen Whitey: I’m aware of the issue. You just told me about it. I was just asking for more data.
Protester (standing again): Here’s a Huffington Post story about a little black girl killed by a white cop. He got away with murder.
Citizen Whitey: What?? Are you serious?? He just killed her?
Protester: Shot her dead while she slept.
Citizen Whitey: That’s outrageous! That’s…! (Reads article) Hold on. It says here this happened during a SWAT raid while they were looking for a murderer. The cop says it was an accident.
Protester: So you’re on the cop’s side? Are you a racist? You must be a racist.
Citizen Whitey: What?! No! I just… You said he murdered her. It’s just, the article… This was a raid. He didn’t just walk up to her on the street and… It’s a little more complicated–
Protester: White privilege!
Citizen Whitey: Ok. Ok. Yeah, maybe. I mean, I’m white… So…
[Protester moves challengingly close to citizen and glares.]
Citizen Whitey (taken aback): Why are you doing that?
Protester: I’m blocking the highway.
Citizen Whitey: Wha– why??
Protester: To raise awareness of systemic racism.
Citizen Whitey: I… I’m aware! Look– weren’t we… Aren’t we talking now? Like, about this very issue?
Protester: I’m tired of talking. Join me. You need to make a difference.
Citizen Whitey: I… Maybe, ok? But I have questions. Is this… You know… Really happening?
Protester: White privilege!
Citizen Whitey: Yeah, we established that. I’m white. I haven’t experienced what you’re talking about. That’s why I’m asking. But, like, if it’s true, I want to try to stop it–
Protester: BLACK LIVES MATTER!
Citizen Whitey: …er, yeah! Yes! I… I agree with that. Can you, maybe, take it down a notch? I’m just… I’m white, so I need to understand better what’s going on. Like I said, are there… Say… Studies that show systemic racism with police shootings and stuff?
Protester: You are awful. Your need for evidence is evidence of your awfulness. You’re the problem. Where’s your white hood, Adolph? Racist.
Citizen Whitey: No! No, really! I’m not… I mean, I try not to…! Look! I’m just… Can you explain it to me? Can you show me examples? I really do want to understand.
Protester: HANDS UP! DON’T SHOOT!
Citizen Whitey: Ok. Yes. I hear you. But…
Protester (challengingly): What??
Citizen Whitey: Well… (Sighs resignedly) Michael Brown didn’t put his hands up, though. Right? I mean, those testimonies turned out to be unreliable. He attacked the cop. Maybe… Maybe that’s not the best example to use to make your case?
Protester: Only if you believe the COP. He’s obviously lying.
Citizen Whitey: But… The witnesses… They saw the fight. And Brown came back at the cop…
Protester: It’s the last straw!! Cops murder black people all the time, constantly, everyday, with no consequences!!
Citizen Whitey: OK, listen, that’s an outrageously huge claim. You can’t just say that without giving hard evidence–
[Protester shoves a sign in the citizen’s face.]
Citizen Whitey: What–!! Why are you– I can’t even read that! It’s too close!!
Protester: I’m raising awareness of cops murdering brown people!
Citizen Whitey: I’m aware!! We’re talking about it right now!!
Protester: You’re not aware enough, otherwise you’d be protesting with me.
Citizen Whitey: Ok, look, I did some research on my own. It’s true that cops hardly ever go to trial for killings in the line of duty. Not just when black people are the targets, though, but when anybody is the target. Maybe there is a problem there, and I want to be sensitive to it–
Protester: How many innocent black people have to be shot dead in cold blood before you’ll care???
Citizen Whitey: I…! None? I’m just… This is a super serious allegation you’re making, and I just haven’t experienced it. Can I… Is it ok if I want some broader evidence? Some data? Before I start condemning all cops as racist murderers?
Protester: We need to just raise awareness.
Citizen Whitey: We’re aware! Everyone’s aware! This is the only thing that’s been in the news for, like, months. Nobody doesn’t know about it, ok? We’re just… Help me understand that the problem is as massive and pervasive as you’re saying…
Protester: How can you be so blind?
Citizen Whitey: Look, you said it yourself. I’m white. Help me out here.
Protester: You just don’t want to see it.
Citizen Whitey: Seriously, I’m trying. You’re white, too, so what convinced you? At least tell me that.
Protester: I’m making a difference.
Citizen Whitey: How? How are you addressing the problem? What people are you actively helping? Are you feeding the inner city poor? Supporting job training programs or something? Proposing laws for police video documentation? Serving as an ambassador between the police and the community? Speaking to suburban schools about the experience of people who are affected by systemic racism? What?
Protester: I’m protesting.
Citizen Whitey: To what end?
Protester: To raise awareness.
Citizen Whitey: I’m aware, dammit! And I’m sympathetic!! I just don’t understand the breadth of the problem as you describe it! All you’re doing is making noise and being an inconvenience and shouting broad accusations at all the rest of us! Convince me! Show me what’s happening with actual studies and data and statistics, not anecdotes and clickbait stories and insults! I’m aware! I’m sympathetic, but you’re right– I’m white! I don’t get it! Maybe I am even part of the problem! Instead of being a nuisance and an antagonist, be an advocate! An ambassador! You have my attention! Make it count! Help me understand!
Citizen Whitey: ………
And that’s how you, the white protester, come across a lot of the time.
Believe it or not, a lot of us have been listening. We are aware. We have questions, yes. We may require some input, some statistics, some broad evidence. But surely those resources exist, right? You’re white. You’ve apparently overcome your own white privilege enough to understand and respect the struggle of black America. Why don’t you tell us about that? Be an ambassador of their struggle. Don’t let us think you’re only protesting because you don’t have anything more meaningful to say.
But even more than that, how about getting down in the community and planning more than protests?
How about planning some meaningful meetings between the authorities in these communities and the affected citizens? You’re in the unique position to be the go-between. Start a petition to require all cops to wear those cool Go-Pro camera headsets I’ve seen all over my Facebook feed. Launch a program to work with inner city kids. Show them some white people who care, who want to know them, and understand them, and come alongside them. I’m just spit-balling here, but the ideas seem endless. Don’t they?
There’s only one thing these ideas lack: they don’t include you standing up publicly for a big newsworthy cause. And let’s be painfully honest here: there’s a lot of satisfaction in that, isn’t there?
I hate to tell you this, but a lot of people (probably wrongly) think that’s the only reason you’re there.
My suggestion? For what it’s worth?
Show them they’re wrong.
That will be more convincing than any words or protests. That’s the kind of progress people will get behind. That’s what will make a difference in the long run. I believe you want that. And I believe a lot of us would join you.
It’s a worthy cause. It’s an important discussion to have. But jumping the shark won’t get us there.