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The Nutcracker Tanda

San Francisco Ballet does it for me. Like most New Yorkers, I was wary of moving to the provinces and leaving behind all my favourite harbingers of culchah. But the ballet company here consistently explodes with energy, leaving the gravitas of ABT and the hipster cred of New York City Ballet in the dust. I remember my mother taking me to see Baryshnikov here when I was not quite two. She took baby-sized me to the ballet here all the time. One of the three things I remember from infancy was Nureyev leaping through a window frame in La Bayadère.And today I kept the cycle going by taking my son to the Nutcracker. He loved it and now wants to be a ballet dancer (in his spare time, when he's not tangoing). I loved it and it reinforced some important tango lessons for me.

Own your body.

Damn, those professional dancers who have spent their lives creating muscle memories are so beautifully in their bodies! Look at that technique! Oh, wait, you can't look at it, you can't even see it, because it's so much a part of them they forget about it and dance freely. You don't see, “piqué, pas de bourrée, plié.” You see what it feels like to be that dancer doing that dance in that moment. Those thousands of hours ingraining movement and bearing into a dancer's character eventually brain-wash the dancer, become part of them, define who they are. So when they're on stage, all we see is freshness, vitality, and feeling.

Project your energy.

When I'm dancing more often than not I feel my body (and my head) getting in the way of my dance. But these feisty young athletes embody that cornerstone tango rule: “when you feel the lead, go.” I so often Don't Go. Going isn't about rushing or doing it fast. Going is about sending your energy where the dance is happening. And because these dancers have such transparent technique, nothing gets in the way of their sending their energy. Their physical energy goes clearly and uniformly where they're headed on the stage. And their emotional energy smacks you between the eyes even when you're a mile away up in the very top of the balcony like we were. There's nothing “sort of” about these dancers. They pick what they're going to say and they say it with their whole heart and soul and with the body that holds those things together. They project complete joy in dance, and joy in living. I say go thou and do likewise.

Let other people in to set yourself free.

Like all women (who were once little girls) I've always associated myself with Clara. But today I watched the beleagured Nutcracker fight his battle with the Mouse King. He's doing a great job, but even the bravest and most tireless of soldiers sometimes needs a little help. Clara saves the day. The smoke clears. She goes over to the Nutcracker, lying wounded and motionless. And then...he changes into a Nutcracker Prince! He was under an evil spell that trapped him in the body of a Nutcracker, and Clara has broken the spell and released him. He dances a soliloquy. “Ahhh. That feels so much better!” he says. “It feels so good to be free, after being stuck inside a wooden Nutcracker so long! Thank you, Clara, for catalysing my return to my true self! ” His whole movement vocabulary is transformed, from wooden and boxy and stuck to open, free, expansive. He flows into the air, huge, round, soaring movements, full of softness and warmth. To my surprise I felt unstoppable tears dripping down my face and soaking my dress. Tchaikovsky's music doesn't hurt, either.

Then in the second half it's Clara's turn for reciprocal identity development. It's San Francisco Ballet's stroke of brilliance to make their Nutcracker a story of character evolution as a result of social integration (and thus unique among Nutcrackers). It's such a simple trick, but every year when I see little-girl Clara transform into big-girl Nutcracker Princess Clara, there go the tears. Sharing our story with others helps us become who we really are, and, ideally, the best possible version of who we are.

Finally, now that our protagonists have helped each other free themselves and claim their own axes, they're ready for the coup de grâce, their pas de deux. It just shreds me, unlike any other pas de deux ever. Just thinking about it shreds me. Because it's about how the only way to dance with someone else is to devote your whole life to getting out of your own way , to throwing out everything that's inauthentic. It's about the épanouissement of character that only comes from building up a close history with someone else over time. It's about the immeasurable rewards that come from taking the risk of living a life with other people in it. And it's about how we bring out the truth in each other and the truth in ourselves. And there's nothing more beautiful than the truth.

Nutcracker Grand Pas de Deux, Moscow Symphony Orchestra

(Tragically there are no YouTube videos of the San Francisco Ballet pas de deux, and after looking over a billion others, I see that nobody else gets it right.  I was raised on Baryshnikov's version, which is a sad good-bye dance and Clara is way too passive.  Everyone else has the Sugar Plum Fairy and her wing man dance it, thus missing the whole emotional point of the music.  I couldn't even use Sugar Plum Fairy versions for a stand-in, because most of the time they have huge smiles on their face and they're posing instead of feeling.  One unnamed video came close in feeling but only SF has a fully-fleshed-out character for the Prince, instead of a passive errand boy.  So consider this a plug to go support your local arts.)