Since the debut of the complete Nutcracker in America at the San Francisco Ballet on Christmas Eve in 1944, The Nutcracker as become an essential holiday tradition for many families. Clara dancing with her nutcracker and ballerinas swirling in “snow” are as a part of Christmas as holly and Christmas trees. The Nutcracker is one of the first ballets for many children, because it’s so magical. But at a full 2 hours plus intermission, it can also be one of the more challenging ballets for the very young. But there are some things that you can do to prepare before you go, so that the whole family can enjoy the performance.
- Consider a shorter version for the very little ones.
It’s great for toddlers! Some ballet companies put on a shorter version of The Nutcracker. I don’t know many young children that can sit through the whole 2 hours, so I LOVE that there’s a shorter option to show children the arts at a younger age. The New Ballet School in San Jose offers a My Very First Nutcracker that features the first act of The San Jose Nutcracker. It tells the well-loved story of Clara and the Nutcracker, while featuring historical references to the heritage that has made Santa Clara Valley the center of innovation it is today. It is presented at a reduced ticket price for young families and is danced to a recorded score.
- Explain what to expect at a ballet versus a play.
If you’ve brought your child to see a play or a movie, they may be expecting people to talk or sing while on stage. One of the more important things to explain to first timers to the ballet is that the dancers use dancing and gestures to “talk”. There is no singing or talking. Giving your child a heads up that it’s all music will make it less likely you’ll hear “why’s there no talking?” at an inopportune moment.
- Give them a synopsis of the ballet.
With no singing or talking, children, and even some adults, may have a hard time following along with what is happening on stage. It helps to explain that the whole first part of The Nutcracker is “real,” but when Clara falls asleep, the rest of it is entirely her dream. And if you have a child that may be sensitive or easy to startly, it may also help to explain that just like the dreams we have in our sleep, The Nutcracker can sometimes be scary, beautiful, and a little strange. But assure them that just like other kids’ shows, it ends happily with Clara waking with her family. And once at the theater, read the program and go over the different movements and acts, so they know when to expect their favorite movement and intermission.
- Read the story together
If you or your child are unfamiliar with the story, it can be unclear what is going on in the ballet, especially with Uncle Drosselmeyer and who he is. I highly recommend reading a children’s picture book of The Nutcracker prior to going to the ballet. It’s tempting to want to show one of the many movies that are out there of the ballet, but that can ruin the specialness of the live performance for some children. And by reading the story together, you get a better explanation of what is going on. There’s a cute picture book that includes buttons that play the music from that scene. It’s The Story Orchestra’s The Nutcracker: Press the Note to Hear Tchaikovsky’s Music. Or you can download an interactive storybook app created by the San Francisco Ballet that allows you to play with the characters on screen as well as see interviews with some performers.
- Color Nutcracker themed pictures or make crafts
With such a beloved ballet, there are so many coloring and craft options you can find on Pinterest. But here are some that not only help your little ones learn about the Nutcracker, but also reinforce their cognitive development.
- Do a listening journal
- Match the shape Nutcracker coloring sheet
- Nutcracker Prince color & assemble paper doll
- Make felt ornaments
- Make a craft stick puppets
- Dance to the music together.
Make listening to the music together even more special and fun by dancing. Allow your child to dance anyway that their little heart leads them and echo their movements. And do your own! This will help your child get to know the music, so that when they go to the ballet they can have fun recognizing the familiar songs.
- Watch the Fantasia scene of the Nutcracker Suite.
- Wear your fanciest outfit and explain how to behave.
Help your child understand that this is a special event and they will be expected to behave in a more formal way. Explaining beforehand when to clap, how to talk in a whisper and the need to stay in their seat will help make the experience more enjoyable for everyone. Will they behave perfectly? No. But at least you’ve talked about it before putting them in the situation.
- Arrive early & meet the Nutcracker and Mouse King
Check with the performance that you are going to see, and they may have the Nutcracker and Mouse King walk around for photos before the show. For some productions this is an add-on in a special lounge area with hot chocolate, and for others it’s just part of the regular experience.
- Make it sweet.
Bring lollipops for when they just won’t settle down. If you go to a full length version, many children have a hard time sitting through the pas de deux at the end of Act II. I’m not one to use bribing on a day-to-day basis, but at a theater? I’ll do what I can (within reason) to get them to behave. Have small candies on hand to distract them. I find that using DumDums lollipops are perfect, because they’re small, keep hands clean(er), and have a wrapper that doesn’t make as much noise when unwrapping.
- Order intermission treats before the show.
Many theaters will allow you order your intermission refreshments prior to the show. Just check with snack bar before you are seated. This way you don’t have to give up the treats because you were standing on the long line for the bathroom.
- Go out for hot chocolate after and see Christmas lights.
I love seeing The Nutcracker in Downtown San Jose, because afterward we grab a hot chocolate and walk around Christmas in the Park. As you walk around you can talk about the ballet, what you liked/disliked, and the kids will most likely get a chance to try out their best grande jeté and pirouette .
Written by Amelia Vitarelli, owner and educator of My Little Conservatory in San Jose, CA. Amelia has been enriching the lives of children in Silicon Valley for over 20 years.