By Janine Kovac
Featured Art: Ballet at the Paris Opéra by Edgar Degas
Today we are a cozy family of three—Daddy, Mama, and daughter. We are taking a road trip from our home in Oakland, California to a town called King City so Daddy can perform his signature role as the Sugar Plum Fairy cavalier. It’s our last trip together before the twins are born and Chiara-Noelle has told me in her three-year-old way that she is not pleased about this pregnancy. She wanted a sister, not two brothers and she can’t understand why we can’t just make what’s growing inside me be something else.
Here’s what she doesn’t know: these twins are mono-amniotic/mono-chorionic. They share a placenta and an amniotic sac and doctors estimate that we have 50/50 odds of getting through the pregnancy without major complications. The twins are not due until mid-April, but to be on the safe side, my doctor has scheduled a C-section in mid-February. It’s the safest way, they say. Outcomes for preemies born at 32 weeks are much better than outcomes for mono-mono twins who, the longer they stay in utero, the greater the chance of strangling on their twin’s umbilical cord.
Here’s what I don’t know: every person who passes by and says, “Whoa! Looks like you’re going to have a baby in a couple of weeks!” is right. Two weeks from now, at twenty-five weeks and four days, I’ll go into labor. The boys will be born at the end of December, fifteen weeks before their April due date. They’ll spend three months in the hospital.
If we had known, Matt certainly wouldn’t have taken this ballet gig in King City. During the day, he works as a paralegal for a software company in Silicon Valley forty miles south of Oakland. On nights and weekends during the Nutcracker season, he rehearses with several San Francisco Bay Area dance schools. He teaches pas de deux class and prepares the advanced students for their roles as Snow Queens, Arabian Princesses, and Sugar Plum Fairies, often partnering them onstage. This invitation to dance in King City was an unexpected and welcome opportunity for one more set of Nutcracker performances.
Last year I spent my days translating code from one programming language to another, but this pregnancy has put all of that on hold. Nowadays just eating balanced meals and taking naps is a full-time job.
“Mama, tell me a story!” our daughter demands from the back seat.
Chiara-Noelle has attended Nutcracker rehearsals with Matt since before she could crawl, but just this year it’s clicked for her. Those people on stage were telling a story. And it’s one she can relate to: a little girl gets a doll for Christmas.
“It is winter in Germany,” I begin. “It’s so cold outside that the milk bottles on the front steps freeze. Clara and Fritz are waiting for all their cousins to come to their party.”
My version is a mishmash of the Nutcrackers I’ve performed during my career as a ballet dancer. The little girl who gets the nutcracker is named Clara, not Marie. Drosselmeyer is kind and eccentric, not creepy and manipulative. The mouse king has one head, not seven the way he does in the original fairytale. When the battle is over, the nutcracker comes to life and takes Clara on a journey through the snow. The gist is this: Clara gets a nutcracker and because she defends him, she gets to go to a magic fairyland.
King City, which is just a dot on the map off Highway 101, has one motor inn and that’s where the King City Ballet Academy has put us up for two nights to cover one dress rehearsal and two performances. The theater is just six blocks into town at the high school, across the street from the town’s laundromat, the grocery store, and taqueria.
Traveling to a new city to dance for complete strangers was my favorite way to perform. It meant that my relationship to the audience was purely based on what I danced, not who I was outside of dance.
This emphasized the phenomenon I love most about the performing arts. A ballet is simultaneously a process and a product, occurring in real time.
Other forms of art—painting, books, movies—exist in the world as physical things. A ballet, on the other hand, is tangible but not material. Sort of the same way that a dream is remembered as concrete but experienced as fleeting. Before the curtain rises, the ballet doesn’t even exist. It’s just pieces: costumes, dancers, choreography. There’s a musical score, sets, scenery, props, light cues. But none of it by itself is the ballet until it is danced for an audience.
After the curtain falls and the dancers have taken their final bows, the performance becomes a shared memory that means something different to each participant, from Fritz to the Sugar Plum Fairy cavalier. From a three-year-old watching Daddy dance for the tenth time to a wife remembering her own career. We experience the ballet together but hold the memory in a way that is uniquely ours.
This is why audiences can return to the Nutcracker year after year. This is how I could dance it fifty times in a single month and it would still feel fresh. Each show exists in the moment it is performed, and then, only exists once, even if the piece is repeated a thousand times.
That’s why a performance feels like magic.
My husband’s approach to ballet is less philosophical. He likes the physicality of it. Each iteration is an opportunity to improve on his technique and execution. That’s how he stays motivated for hundreds of rehearsals and annual performances. Perhaps it mirrors his tenure as a basketball player in high school before he discovered dance in college.
When the clerk checks us in, she brightens when she reads Matt’s name. “You’re the star dancer! I’m going to see you tomorrow. Got my tickets and everything. My granddaughter’s dancing. My husband is helping out backstage. You know, we used to have a Nutcracker every year. Then about twenty years ago the director went to Scotland. We’re pleased as punch that she’s back.” She hands us two keys and a handful of meal vouchers for the motor inn’s restaurant.
In our room overlooking the highway, I unpack our suitcases. I separate dance clothes from day clothes. It feels like a pre-performance ritual, although this time around, there is more to unpack than just dance accoutrements. It’s just a short trip, but we have brought with us plenty of toys and pre-natal protein shakes.
* * * * *
The high school auditorium where the King City Ballet Academy will perform, named the Robert Stanton Theater, is a full-sized theater. It’s enormous for any sized high school, let alone one in a town that boasts of only one stoplight. It has a balcony and a full light board, which means that there are two spotlights in the balcony and four light trees backstage. It was built in 1939 as part of the Works Progress Administration and Federal Arts Project, two New Deal agencies that provided jobs during the Great Depression. The theater has been listed on the National Register of Historical Places and much of the external decorations look similar to the Grand Opera House in Uvalde, Texas where I danced once when my regional ballet company took their production of the Nutcracker on tour.
“We are so glad to meet you!” The director of the King City Ballet Academy smiles broadly as she shakes Matt’s hand. She nods at me. “This is our first Nutcracker in many years. We’re just had twelve weeks to get things up and running again. Let me give you a tour around.” She looks at Chiara-Noelle. “Are you here to see Daddy dance?”
No one here knows that I, too, was a professional ballet dancer and I prefer it that way. Part of me likes to give Matt center stage but mostly, it embarrasses me to talk about my career.
On paper it looks impressive. After training for years on scholarship at prestigious ballet schools, I danced in Europe before coming back to San Francisco.
The truth of it is that my career felt like a patchwork quilt. My notable roles were in obscure ballets with small dance troupes. My few stints with A-list companies were spent in the corps de ballet. Not all the work was steady, and during my decade as a professional, I often returned home to Texas to dance in whatever show I could find.
While I was dancing, I loved what I did. The big companies provided security while the small ones offered eclectic opportunities such as performing in a medieval castle or in an amphitheater nestled in the mountains. But upon reflection, the whole of my career is smaller than the sum of its jobs.
Ballet was my day job until I was sidelined by an injury at age thirty. I fell coming out of a dangerous lift in rehearsal. By the time I’d finished with physical therapy, the idea of auditioning to find new work was exhausting. It made more sense to find a new line of work—such as writing code for websites. Shortly afterwards I met Matt at a wedding of mutual dancer friends. In our ten years together he’s supported me through a career transition from ballet to software and I’ve supported his careful balance of an office day job and ballet gigs. These days I’m content to skirt the spotlight and play a supporting role as wife and mother.
“This is probably so much smaller than what you’re used to,” the director says, gesturing to the stage.
“It’s beautiful,” Matt tells her. “I can’t believe this is a high school auditorium.”
She nods proudly. “We make do. Dressing rooms are in the back. You’re on stage right. I think you’ve got about an hour before we’ll start on Act II. Please make yourself at home.”
Matt gives a little stage bow and the director returns to the rehearsal in progress. It’s been many years since I’ve danced in this ballet, but I can still hear my first director’s voice. In King City, she would have criticized the choice of wearing white at a Christmas party and she would have yelled at all the dancers for moving their lips during their pantomime.
Chiara-Noelle is too tiny to see over the seat in front of her. She tries to get comfortable on my lap, but there’s not much room for her to sit. My belly takes up most of the space that used to be all hers.
Why does Drosselmeyer have an eye patch? She wants to know, only the way she says it, it comes out as “Why dud de haf da eye patch?”
Good question. I’ve never thought of that. Why does Drosselmeyer have an eye patch? The real answer is that Drosselmeyer has an eye patch to make the audience uneasy. Can this guy be trusted or not?
I give Chiara-Noelle the preschool-appropriate answer.
“Because he’s mysterious.”
“What’s so mysterious about an eye patch?” she asks, which comes out as “Why dat miteereyuss?”
Why is an eye patch mysterious? It’s just an eye patch.
Next to us in the aisle, Matt stretches on the floor. His phone vibrates. It’s his sister. He takes the call back to his dressing room.
On stage the party guests are saying their good-byes. In the wings, Clara changes into her dressing gown, waiting for her next entrance, the transition from the party scene to the battle. Soon the tree will grow and the mice will come to challenge Clara’s nutcracker.
Drosselmeyer crosses from stage left to stage right in his eye patch and equally mysterious cape. A stagehand sneaks behind a papier mâché grandfather clock with owl wings on the sides of the clock’s face. He shuffles to the front of the stage.
“Stop!” The director claps her hands. “Fred? When you do that, can you make sure you are still really close to the wing? That way we don’t see the little mice when they come out of the clock. Thanks.”
Thanks? I try to imagine my old director thanking one of her stage hands for doing his job.
“Little mice? Are you ready backstage?” The director turns to the gaggle of seven-year-old girls sitting in the front row, clearly not ready for their entrance.
“My goodness! You’re not backstage!” she chides, but still in a friendly voice. “It’s almost time for you to come out! Go! Go! Take your places.”
The stage is lit and the house is dark. The director shields her eyes and looks toward the sound booth. “Alejandro? Can you take it from Drosselmeyer’s crossing?”
Alejandro starts the music again. Drosselmeyer sweeps across the stage. Fred pushes the clock. The owl wings flap as the prop strikes midnight. Chiara-Noelle counts along: “One! Two! Four! Seven! Thirty!”
One by one little mice hop out from behind the clock and circle around Clara as she cradles her nutcracker.
“Mama, mice don’t hop,” Chiara-Noelle shakes her head. The little mice have piqued her interest because they are the dancers closest in size to her own. She points at the mouse who has forgotten her steps. “Dey not ve-wy good!” A bold statement for someone who herself isn’t coordinated enough to skip.
“It’s hard to remember all those steps,” I say. Although my director would have agreed with Chiara-Noelle. In fact, she probably would have yelled at those little mice.
On stage Clara walks slowly backwards toward the audience. The tree is growing. Or is she shrinking? Mice-shaped shadows fly over the stage. On the CD, the string section and the horns modulate in a musical spiral, a melody that is full of tension, excitement, and foreboding.
For me, no Clara will ever replace my memories of my childhood friend Dee Bee in her long nightgown with the laced cuffs and collar. Of all the scenes she danced, Dee Bee was at her most resplendent during the interlude in which Drosselmeyer’s magic makes the tree grow. Each night she’d circle the stage, sometimes with pique turns, other times in a dramatic manèges of grand jetes. Dee Bee would often immerse herself so fully into a role, she’d forget the steps. Only those of us familiar with the choreography knew when she was improvising. Everyone else saw only the fierce emotions she conveyed. She was a Clara simultaneously bewildered by the magic around her and determined to rise to the challenge. I don’t know what’s happening, but I will stand up for the ones I love. I will defend my nutcracker.
Through the loudspeakers, a cymbal crashes. On stage, the Christmas lights on the fake tree sparkle to match the twinkling of percussion instruments.
Matt tiptoes down the center aisle and makes his way to us.
“I have to call my mom,” he says in a whisper. “Something’s wrong with my dad.”
From stage right, a soldier marches to center stage and fires a warning shot.
* * * * *
After we put Chiara-Noelle to bed, we huddle in the bathroom of our motel room. In a hushed whisper, Matt fills me in on the details of the day’s phone calls.
“My dad has a tumor in his abdomen. The doctor thinks it might be as big as fifteen pounds. It’s possible that it’s been growing for years. He’ll have surgery. And if that doesn’t work, chemotherapy or radiation.”
The news sits there between us. A fifteen-pound tumor? It sounds impossible. Matt’s dad competes in triathlons. He’s only sixty-eight. Someone like that seems too healthy to have cancer.
During the short months of my risky twin pregnancy, Matt and I have come to equate being informed with being prepared. Surely cancer is no different. We’re certain that Wikipedia and Google can tell us everything we need to know to be armchair oncologists. This is our last innocent moment, the last time in our lives when we harbor the naïve optimism that an armload of facts can predict an outcome.
In the coming months we will tackle each obstacle as it appears.
Two weeks from now, when a routine ultrasound shows that I’m in pre-term labor, we will go to the hospital.
When the twins are born, hovering at a pound and a half apiece, we will call for reinforcements. My mother will come to stay with us.
Matt will get permission from his boss to work part time from our apartment.
The twins will come home after a three-month stint in the hospital.
We will do the math: we cannot live on a paralegal’s salary, but we might be able to do it if Matt went to law school.
When Matt’s father needs a second surgery, then a third, Matt will fly to Florida to be at his father’s side.
As our twins become more robust, their grandfather’s health will decline.
After the last finals of the spring semester of Matt’s first year at law school, we will get the call.
When we go to the funeral, my mother will stay with our children.
Each task is performed with technical efficiency, even grace. Like my career, our milestones will look like a seamless run of accomplishments. In reality, they have more in common with Dee Bee’s improvisation. Sometimes we experience the grief in real time. Other days we push it away the same way I’d ignore the pain of a blood blister on the knuckles of my toes.
* * * * *
The King City Ballet Academy version of Nutcracker has a bit of a potluck feel to it. Many of the costumes look like they were brought from home—such as the white dress from the party scene—and the cast is small and very young. Matt and his partner are not just the only professionals, they are also the only dancers above the age of fifteen. Many dancers perform several roles and Fred must hold the curtain for a brief pause between the battle and the snow scene because most of the mice are also snowflakes. Still, it’s a full-length production of the Nutcracker with two sold-out shows. And put together in just twelve weeks. That in itself is impressive.
While Matt alternates between offering hopeful texts to family members and warming up backstage, I try one last time to convince Chiara-Noelle to go to the bathroom before the show starts.
“It’s time to go potty!”
“I dohna need to go,” she insists, shaking her head.
Maybe she doesn’t, but I do. My belly is so heavy, it bears down on my bladder. If I stopped for a moment to let my brain register what my body is telling it, I would recognize this feeling. This is how I felt in the days just before Chiara-Noelle was born.
In the foyer mothers and aunts from the ballet school have set up concessions to sell. There are toy nutcracker ornaments, candy canes in felt reindeer sheaths, and chocolate chip cookies in Christmas-themed cellophane wrap.
“Would you like a cookie, little girl?” A woman arranges poinsettias on the table. She gestures to the trays of Rice Krispies treats and candy canes next to the ballerinas made from pipe cleaners.
Chiara-Noelle’s eyes widen and she looks at me. She knows her best chance for treats is not directly asking for them. I nod solemnly and she shyly grins as she selects a snack.
“What an adorable little girl! How old?”
“Three years old in February.”
“And little brother or sister?” The woman points to my belly. “Expecting a Christmas baby?”
“Something like that,” I say. I’m just as reluctant to talk about our twin pregnancy as I am about my ballet career.
“You’re the family that’s come down to be the stars!” One of the fathers comes over to shake my hand. Last night I saw him decorating Christmas trees in the lobby. “You know, the last time King City had a Nutcracker I danced in it!” He chuckles and pats his beer belly. “It was a long time ago.”
The pre-show buzz in the lobby is different from my experience as a dancer and spectator. No one here is in a hurry. They are all smiles and hugs as they congratulate each other on this collective effort. In this way I come to hear about the fathers who laid down the Marley floor and the mothers who have sewn sequins on tiaras.
It is the director herself who shoos everyone into the theater.
“Come on! Come on! It’s time to start!”
After we find our seats, Chiara-Noelle wiggles on top of my lap.
“No room!” she complains.
The lights lower. From somewhere in his sound booth, Alejandro starts the CD. And just like that, it’s Christmas Eve on stage.
The party scene is a little lean and the scenery is sparse, but I know from my eavesdropping in the lobby that it was finished in the garage of the same dad whose daughter will dance the part of the ballerina doll, the Snow Queen, and chocolate from Spain. I imagine he is beaming with pride at his contribution.
This is what’s been missing from my philosophy of the performing arts. I have always considered the roles of the collective sum of dancers, choreography, and sets, but I’ve never considered the role of the community. Perhaps because in a small company like my Texas hometown, criticism overshadowed volunteer enthusiasm and in the big companies, all the players were paid professionals.
I don’t know yet that patchwork community will be our lifeline over the next years and months—through the birth of our sons and the death of their grandfather. There are no facts from the Internet, no perfect technique. There is, in fact, no principal dancer.
Chiara-Noelle squirms in my lap and one of the twins gives my ribs a solid kick.
On stage little mice hop around Clara. Drosselmeyer makes one final crossing before the tree starts to grow.
Between crashes of cymbals, the horns swirl, as if they are traipsing down a spiral staircase while the strings modulate higher and higher. Hope and uncertainty mingle before meeting together with another crash.
It’s Clara’s last innocent moment. She has no idea that soon she’ll be caught in the crossfire between life-sized toy soldiers and giant mice wielding weapons. She will come to the aid of her nutcracker, though, and it will change everything.
Janine Kovac is a writer living in the San Francisco Bay Area where she teaches writing workshops and curates literary events. Her memoir Spinning: Choreography for Coming Home was a semifinalist for Publishers Weekly’s BookLife Prize and the memoir winner of the 2019 National Indie Excellence Awards. An alumna of Hedgebrook Janine was the 2016 recipient of the Elizabeth George Foundation Fellowship. Her current project is a collection of essays about a family of five that dances in the Nutcracker.