Traditions: Peering Through the Lens of Nostalgia

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There are a couple of late November moments that fill me with so much nostalgia and sentimentality I get chills. One is hearing the strains of Tchaikovsky’s Miniature Overture to The Nutcracker for the first time in the long Nut season. Don’t get me wrong: I am not a fan of the ballet, nor the score, with the exception a couple of noteworthy moments (Act I Scene II’s Snow pas de deux, and the chorus which happens later in the same, and possibly Act II’s Mother Ginger variation, which makes me want to jump up and dance).

But for years my mom and I danced together in Memphis Ballet’s Nutcracker, and there are so many, many intense memories inextricably bound up in that galvanizing experience it is impossible not to be nostalgic about it, to wit: the year I was feverish with flu and sipped Sprite backstage to try not to vomit on my wool felt costume; the morning mom and I were on our way to the theatre in downtown Memphis to dance in one of many performances mounted for the Memphis City Schools, delayed by an impossibly long train at a railroad crossing, arriving at the theater just in the nick of time; the red circles painted on my cheeks when I was a soldier in Act I that took days to finally fade; my dad’s irritation with the company’s Soviet-style Russian director who possessed not one smidgen of shame about scheduling late-night rehearsals for young children with even younger siblings in tow; but also the pantheon of Really Famous principals and soloists Mr. Balanchine routinely sent down to us from New York City Ballet each year because of the same Russian director’s connections with him; and on, and on, and on.

Call it total Nutcracker immersion: it stakes its claim to you, heart and soul, and there is no escaping that for the rest of your life.

The other thing to give me chills happens on Thanksgiving morning and goes like this: Five, Four, Three, Two, One—Let’s have a parade!

It surely does the same to many thousands of others, too. What I recall about that annual moment in bygone years was special time with my dad, who made sure I was in front of the telly with hot cocoa in hand to watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. It was a family tradition I introduced to my own young child when I became a parent.

Life sometimes gets in the way of traditions. I know mom was there some Thanksgiving mornings for the parade, too, almost certainly. But I also remember at least one Thanksgiving when we were already in the theatre in rehearsals for Nut by the time Thanksgiving rolled around. We probably watched the parade in the morning, but there was no traditional Thanksgiving dinner that year because of hours spent later in the day and into the evening at Ellis Auditorium in downtown Memphis.

The first two years I lived in Vermont I did not have cable and therefore did not have the chance to see the parade at all. Last year I was at Handsome Chef Boyfriend’s on Thanksgiving morning, but as fate would have it, high winds that ripped through the Berkshires the night before took out the cable signal. No parade.

But this year! This year, I turned it on and watched the first hour of it while HCB finalized preparations of the mountains of food we would soon pack into the car before heading to his mom’s. I got the requisite chills, as always. And dad and I had already exchanged texts to make sure each of us was poised to watch it.

My own son, on the other hand, thought better of it and decided to sleep in. So much for continuing a cherished family tradition.

Really, there is not much to cherish anymore about the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. Decades ago it had already given itself over to the far-reaching “commercialism” that now defines the holiday season, bumper to bumper. Christmas starts before Halloween, big box stores begin to trumpet their door-busting sales soon thereafter, and every place you go, it seems, starts piping in Christmas music at about the same time.

The truth is, I no longer really care much about the parade, particularly since adverts began disrupting the flow of things many, many years ago. I do love the very beginning moments of it, in the same way I love the Miniature Overture. I love seeing the excitement on the faces of the littles in the crowd. I will always love the excerpts from Broadway shows, even if the casts lip-sync them. (And I must say the opening of this year’s parade in particular was brilliant, with the Latin beat of the new Gloria Estefan-themed show On Your Feet! engaging everybody in the crowd, including some of the other performers. If that did not make you want to jump up and dance, then there is absolutely no hope for you.)

The rest I can (mainly) do without. More and more these days I do not even recognize the names of the featured performers. And busy Thanksgiving Day plans seem always to tear me away from enjoying the high school marching bands, all those pimply uniformed kids who doubtless are so excited to visit the Big Apple, even if they are in their “prime suffering years,” as Frank’s character insisted in Little Miss Sunshine.

Once I even suggested to my Uncle Stan, who lived most of his adult life in neighboring Queens, that I come for a visit and we go see the parade. Ever the sarcastic queen himself, he waved it off and said, Save your money: you’ll spend your entire morning shivering while you stare into a horse’s ass—literally. I always loved that peremptory honesty about my Uncle Stan, as much as I loved him.

In the end, it is not the traditions, it seems, but the memories that the shadows of those traditions somehow evoke, year after year. Roles change and life does indeed insinuate itself in the best of our intentions.

Advent is a big tradition that begins today on the liturgical calendar, and is observed right up to Christmas. The word itself means “coming;” for me, it was once all about anticipation, expectation, and preparation, back when I was still a practicing Episcopalian. It is a tradition that nowadays is mainly trampled in our eagerness to bust down the doors for holiday sales while we shop along to the strains of popular Christmas carols.

But there is also a tradition of beautiful Advent hymnody, at least in the Episcopal church, whence comes my sensibilities about such things. 2015 has felt rushed, Thanksgiving felt rushed, holiday shopping will also feel rushed, and probably some of my gifts will reach loved ones a little late. This year I plan to gift myself a bit of Advent reflection in the face of Nutcrackers and Santas, and the strains of Christmas carols that began before Halloween. I treasure the Vince Guaraldi Trio playing A Charlie Brown Christmas as much as the next guy; in fact, I’d go so far as to say it makes me wistful. It is still too soon, even for that bit of nostalgia.

I leave you to enjoy this lush, contemporary instrumental version of my favorite Advent hymn, whatever your faith tradition. Its ancient opening words—O come, O come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel—seem so timely, and nostalgic.

 

A Most Happy Ear Worm

The Most Happy Fella

On a day some time in the early 90s a song from The Most Happy Fella insinuated itself in my head as an earworm–you know: that refrain or tune you get in your head that will not leave you? The show had just enjoyed its second Broadway revival which is probably why I was thinking of it.

Anywho. In a late-night chat session with my Uncle Stan I asked him to help me with the title of the song–this was a show he had conducted, so I knew he’d have the answer. Our exchange went something like this:

Me: Hey, do you know the name of the song from MHF that goes something about “standing on the corner watching all the girls go by?”

Stan: Yes. It’s called, “Standing on the Corner (Watching All the Girls Go By).”

Boom.

The Most Happy Fella is a show with old-fashioned sensibilities but I dare you to keep a straight face when you listen to this song. And what I love about this particular clip–which was an advert for a West Coast opera production–is that it dumps art right in the public’s lap. I just love that, corny as it is. (And also, these four gents have lovely voices.) Thanks, Stan.

 

Pressing Reset

Time for a cIMG_20140903_202052hange. Not How The Story Ends served its purpose, saw me through the thousand-mile journey which in so many ways continues. And although I think the overriding message there is one of hope, it is still a bit backward looking. My hope now is to live in the moment and tell stories that are relevant to the present, with a nod to the people who helped me arrive here.

To that end, I have a new story to tell about my Uncle Stan, to whom I was especially close the last few years of his life while he struggled with a cruel illness. We made a lot of discoveries about each other in those years in spite of the fact that most of our communication happened in lengthy late-night email exchanges—I in my basement home office, and he in his basement home in NYC. One of those discoveries was that we each loved writing, hungrily—something I did not know about him growing up.

Stan was a classically trained musician, an orchestra conductor who spent a number of years in that capacity at Light Opera of Manhattan, or LOOM, as it was known to many. Years after its demise, but not so long before his death, he made a brave trip overseas under what most would consider challenging circumstances to conduct a final Gilbert and Sullivan festival in Great Britain. His decision to do that made him my hero, hands down.

He documented his travels in a witty three-part manuscript he called Down in the Pits at Buxton, sending me all of it in pieces. We talked at length about it while he was writing, and afterwards. We did not talk much about his illness, but it was somehow always there in the room with us. He died just before my return to classical ballet after a long absence; he did not see the beautiful ballet school I founded in Tennessee in 2006. I gave the eulogy at his memorial service.

Uncle Stan left a few cherished belongings to me by way of a lifelong friend of his in the city, including the Playbills from every single Broadway show he ever attended. I have them packed away in boxes and some day will decide what to do with them. But I think Down in the Pits’ time has come, and I know he would be happy for me to help be his voice. I will dig it up and share some or all of it, as I think it should be.

And I will have plenty of other stories to tell besides.~Deb

About the photo: Stan gave me that doll when I was eight as a monument to my first time on a big stage, in a big venue, dancing in Nutcracker alongside my ballerina mama. He now lists a bit to one side and is showing signs of male pattern baldness. I now also list a bit to one side. But to quote Mr. Sondheim: I’m still here. And so is Herr Nutcracker. And so is my Uncle Stan.