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Tell me a (Nutcracker) story

(American Ballet Theatre/ Brooklyn Academy of Music)
No sooner do I settle myself in when a big guy, burly, bald and beer-bellied, starts to squeeze by to take the seat next to me. I get up to move. “Naw,” he says, dripping Brooklynese. “Doan move. I ain’t as trim as I usedta be, but I’ll get by.” And he does. Then, after catching his breath, he engages me in conversation as if we’re old friends. In the less than five minutes before curtain time, I learn the following: His name is Victor LaRossa and, except for two years in Vietnam in the late 1960s and nine months in upstate New York when he tried to “find myself aftah my first marriage,” he has lived all his life in Brooklyn. He’s never seen the Nutcracker or any ballet. His wife – “hey, Joanie, meet this nice lady,” he brays to the woman on the other side of him – got the tickets from a woman whose kid the wife takes care. “But cultcha, ya know. It can’t hurt,” he says. I love this guy. This guy is why The Nutcracker is the most popular ballet in America.

(New York City Ballet/ Lincoln Center)
At intermission, the elegant lady sitting behind me asks, in a southern drawl, whether I am reviewing the ballet for a newspaper. She has observed me scribbling notes during the performance. She’s just in from South Carolina to take her daughter, an NYU film student, to see the performance. They’ve been “nutcrackering” together, as she puts it, for twenty years, including four years when the daughter was a mouse in the local production. “I worked back stage,” the mother tells me. “I loved every minute of it,” she says. The daughter leans into her mother, gives her a little shoulder bump.

The next morning, hoping to beat the worst of a snow storm that seems to have followed me since Chicago, I am on the plane out of JFK headed for San Francisco. Sitting next to me is a handsome, strapping guy wearing worn, top-quality cowboy boots. It turns out he is a national rodeo clown. Who’s seen the Nutcracker. (Of course, I ask.) His mother took him to a performance by the Tulsa Ballet Company (he grew up on a ranch outside of town) when he was twelve. There’s more. He took his first girlfriend on date to the Tulsa Nutcracker. “I bet that impressed her,” I say. “Well,” he says, in that laconic way cowboys have, “it was kind of a goodbye present. I broke up with her the next week.” I’m thinking: If a rodeo clown sitting next to you on a plane has a Nutcracker story – actually two — Does that mean everyone has a Nutcracker story?

excerpted from Chapter 1: The Binge
Raising the Barre: Big Dreams, False Starts and My Mid-Life Quest to Dance The Nutcracker. Now in paperback!!



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