Christmas Traditions:The Nutcracker

Nutcracker 2

Last night, all the toys tumbled out of the toybox and magically came to life. Toy soldiers marched, Russian dancers leapt and the Sugar Plum fairy stole the show. Clara displayed her delight in a series of jetés, bourées and pirouettes with her handsome prince and kept us all enthralled.

Yes, I was in the theatre enjoying the greatest of all Christmas ballets, The Nutcracker.

Though I can`t lay claim to an educated eye on these matters, everything about this production seemed just perfect. From the second the curtain was raised, and the first dancers took their place on stage, it was clear that every single move of each hand, foot, eye was carefully choreographed and painstakingly rehearsed.

The story is an old one. Clara is given a present of a Nutcracker, formed in the shape of a toy soldier. The Nutcracker comes to life at midnight, as a handsome prince. He leads the toy soldiers in a battle against the mice, and onwards he travels with Clara through the land of sweets. These sweets delight Clara in a celebration of dance, before the famous dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy with the handsome Cavalier ends the magical journey for Clara. She awakens next morning, under the Christmas tree, holding her Nutcracker toy.

The ballet company who brought this Nutcracker to the stage, are a relatively new one on the scene. This is Monica Loughman`s School of Ballet. I`ve been intrigued by Ms Loughman ever since I read about her heading to Perm in Russia at the age of fourteen for four years to train in the prestigious ballet school there. I simply couldn`t imagine,as a parent, ever letting any of my kids head off to foreign shores on their own for that length of time. And not many kids would be brave enough to do it either.

Clearly, Monica was very determined from a very early age.

Perm was tough. Food was poor, the culture was very different and Monica has said herself that she had some serious catching up to do on her first year there, to reach the standard of the Russians.

And she did. Three years after her arrival in Perm, she was accepted into the Perm State Ballet company.

Monica returned to Ireland with all of that experience, steel and ambition and set about passing so much of that on through her training of young ballet dancers in Ireland. I caught some of her work in the television programme “Ballet Chancers” a few years ago and she certainly impressed there as one very strict teacher, demanding everything of her charges.

That discipline shows in last night`s performance. The overall effect was of stunning beauty. Everything looked natural, effortless and easy. And that only comes with sheer fitness, athleticism, grace, co-ordination. And an artistic director who insists on getting even the least finger movement correct.

The set, all larger than life, added to the dreaminess of the scene. The costumes were as stunning as they were varied. This was a visual feast.

For those of you lucky enough to live in and around Dublin, this production runs on the 21st and 22nd December in The Convention Centre. Catch it if you can.

But there are Nutcrackers in lots of venues right now. It`s a bread and butter ballet for a lot of companies as it is so popular at this time of the year. Plainly, lots of people have added it to their list of Christmas traditions.

And, after last night`s performance, I am definitely adding it to mine.

Further information:

Monica Loughman`s school of dance

Picture credit:

How the Candy Cane Fairies Stopped My Advent Streak

Little ballerinas

Little ballerinas

The problem with the Advent running streak is that, well, it happens during Advent.

Advent, that time of craft fairs, cake sales and of course, the annual ballet show.

My regular reader will recall how fond I am of ballet. So fond, that even if Bogland Ireland couldn`t fulfil my childhood dream, I made damn sure Teen Girl did.

I highly recommend living through your children. I now have the greatest of pleasure seeing her en pointe and waving her arms about oh, so gracefully, exactly as I would do if I`d had half the chance. Why, I even have tips I`d love to share with her, but somehow, she doesn`t want to listen…

At least I am allowed to attend the annual Christmas show.

There are all sorts and all ages in my daughter`s ballet school, from three to thirty and beyond. Maybe three hundred in all? Anyway, all of them got their turn on stage yesterday afternoon. And repeated the whole darned performance later on that evening.

As you can imagine, this feat requires precision planning, a few professional stage hands and large body of parents insane enough to volunteer to help out. Naturally, I satisfied the insanity clause and was swiftly left standing in front of twenty nine candy cane fairies.

It`s been a while since I`ve even seen a three year old candy cane fairy. Most times, she preferred her princess guise. Occasionally she would dress as a witch but, as she started ballet a whole lot later, at the ripe old age of six, I didn`t have the terror of wondering if she could wait two hours for her turn to stand in front of those hot stage lights and noisy audience.

Now, standing off stage with my little charges, I was terrified for each of them.

I had forgotten just how sweet a little kid is; all big eyes, dimpled arms and innocence. Each wore a little fairy dress with the red and green candy cane colours. And, it being ballet, they had their hair
upswept in buns and teeny tiny ballet pumps on their feet.

Luckily, we got to spend a lot of that wait watching the show. That meant trooping our charges up one of those labyrinthine passageways to the theatre balcony. Oh! how cute that fairy line looked as they stood in pairs. But cute fairy lines could move at speed. I was grateful when other volunteers showed up to shepherd the bopping line along the stairways, through heavy doors, and finally to the safety of their seats.

I can remember my first time sitting in a flip up theatre seat. It was in the new cinema in Bogland and the movie was “Mary Poppins”. Those seats were fun, weren`t they? Well, almost half a century on, twenty nine fairies discovered them for themselves. Soon, some of the smarter fairies found the armrests moved too. And with an even more satisfying noise! It was also another reason for some fairies to need to go to the toilet. Cue more running to and from the toilet area, counting charges and praying aloud.

By now, the sweat was pouring off me. Running a marathon would have been easier. And there was still a whole show to run.

Having been for the matinée performance, I found it trickier to watch the show second time round. Especially with my back to it, counting fairies and fixing fairy costumes. But the fairies loved it. The land of make believe and reality are all one to a little fairy so the witch in Swan Lake is just as real as all the swans. Just a lot scarier and maybe even a little too much for some of my candy canes.

Their concentration spans are different too. An hour into the show, some had forgotten why they were in the theatre and some had even fallen asleep. But we soon got the nod to shuffle the whole troupe backstage again. More seat flipping, more dancing in pairs and back around the labyrinth to a waiting room.

Troupes of princesses, swans, and shimmering jazz costumes move purposefully about backstage, and the little sugar cane fairies stood off stage watching. Two started to cry. All those bright lights and noise just overwhelmed their little fairy sensibilities. And anyway, every good fairy gets tired eventually and crying seems just the right thing to do.

Luckily, the other fairies paid no heed and couldn`t wait for their turn to go onstage.Neither could I.Sure, I wanted to see them dance but I was a very tired old fairy then ( or maybe even a wicked witch), and I just wanted to go home.

Soon their turn came. With twinkling starlight music they tripped along stage to a gasp of Ah! from the audience. And just as suddenly their dance in the footlights ended as their trotted backstage again following some willowy, sweet princess.

With the last fairy off stage and handed over to their proud parent, I was finally free. I tripped out into the cold night air glad to have done a little to help, glad to be among all that innocence for a little while but shattered after all of it.

Oh, I`d love a little fairy of my own again. But not twenty nine. Just the one.

And, even though I should have run yesterday, I wasn`t too sorry that the fairies took all my energy. After all this is ballet and this is Christmas. It only happens once a year.

And it is magic.


Bending Over Backwards

Bending Over Backwards

I have always known that I am a bendy, stretchy person. Why, one of least useful skills is the fact, that on a good day-and preferably when no one is watching -I can bend over backwards and type at the same time.

Don`t believe me? Well, see above pic. No, it`s not me. but its what I`d look like if I were performing the crab over my laptop. Except my laptop is black, not white. And I rarely wear pencil skirts.

I can touch my thumb to my forearm and touch the ground without bending my knees. Oh, and bend my little finger up into a right angle.

I never knew this bendy stretchy stuff had a name. Nor that it was, actually, a problem. At least for my running.

Twelve miles into  last October`s marathon, my feet felt like they were coming apart. If you`ve run a marathon, you`ll know how hard it is not to run it. When you`re out there, after having trained for months, you not going to let anything stop you on the day. And so, squished my feet through fourteen miles of agony after that. Yes, it was worth it.

Two weeks post marathon, I was still hobbling. I hobbled all the way to the podiatrist`s clinic. And it was there that I first heard the word: Hypermobility.

She told me that my joints can move around too freely because the ligaments are loose. And the ligaments and tendons are loose because they have too much collagen.

Great for swimming-I`ve been told my feet move really gracefully in the water.

Not so good for running.

Great for super smooth skin. (Oh,you can tell, I hate to brag.)

Not so great for ballet. At least, not from the perspective of injury.

Ah, yes, my last entry where I had dreams of being Dark Swan before Nicole Portman was ever born? Well, all that bendy stretchy stuff really is useful for dance. And gymnastics.

Mind you, the closest I got to it in reality is years and years of doing yoga.

My daughter`s ballet teacher took me aside last week. Her first lesson en pointe went well but, the ballet teacher explained, my daughter is hypermobile. From a ballet perspective, her foot looks beautiful, arches wonderfully when she is up on her toes, but, and she looked at my girl gravely as she said:

“You should never, ever try a double pirouette”

Apparently, her foot en pointe is too unstable to support her if she decides to spin about the place. Hypermobility makes her feet more prone to injury.

My girl doesn`t mind in the slightest. She likes dance but is unlikely to be treading the boards for the Bolshoi any time soon. Double pirouettes aren`t her priority.

But never mind her; this blog is all about me.Right?

I want to keep running. But without wrecking my feet. Armed with all the nightmare prognosis that internet research guarantees. I have, nevertheless, managed to find a few useful tips for my training plan.

Back come the orthotics. Seems my feet need some stability. They`ll do it for my workday.

Off come the shoes. I like to prance about the house in socks anyway. So it`s foot stretching  and strengthening time when I`m sofa bound.

Out comes the yoga mat. Back to more strengthening poses than the stretchy bendy showy offy stuff I like to do.

I`ve always love biking, and can swim reasonably well. So they`re back in as part of my running fitness.

Dammit, but I really really want another go at a marathon. Dublin, specifically. I hope I can do it.

See, there is something really special about getting into the marathon club. For me, it just always will be up there as a Lifetime Achievement thing. Up there in lights, along with the Births of My Three Children.

That is why I felt a sucker punch when son texted me about the sad happenings at the Boston Marathon. The loss of innocent lives anywhere should matter to all of us. But marathon endline is, to me, as sacred a space as any for it is full of the the very best of the human spirit.

It is the point which marks triumph over adversity.

It`s also why I`ll be glued to my TV on Sunday, watching the London Marathon. I am really excited for my fellow bloggers as they head into this. Go, all of you! You will rock. You will test yourself to the last. You will succeed. You will be SO proud of you!

The crowd will be great and I`ll be roaring too.

“Go You!”






A Girl Can Dream

En Pointe

En Pointe

I missed last Thursday`s run. Work, dinner, clean up, shopping took over. And then,just as I thought I might don my running gear, my girl came bounding down the stairs with her new ballet pumps.

“Don`t forget, Mum, you`ve to sew ribbon onto these”

Aaaarrggh! Of course I`d forgotten. And I hate, hate, hate sewing. And now I`d have to watch my chance of running ebb away like a luminously clad jogger disappearing into the distance.

It reminded me that running makes me selfish. Running sinks into your soul and while you curse when you`re out there, you`re frustrated when something holds you back. I`d missed the previous day`s run too. I know when I miss two days in a row I can feel Old Me setting in. Old Unfit Me. The Running Me who actually ran a marathon once starts to fade from view. Yes, it`s that fast.

I looked at the delicate footwear confections in my daughter`s hands, the perfect pale peachness of ribbons, and I looked at her: face shining with hope and dreams, longing to go en pointe like a real ballet dancer.

“Oh and there`s a video on youtube that shows you exactly how to do it! ”

Ballet has a way of slipping into a girl`s heart.

I remembered being twelve and wishing I could really dance. I`d only ever seen ballet on our black and white telly. And only if it wasn`t commandeered for a more interesting programme. For my four brothers, anything else counted as a more interesting programme.

Whatever little I saw of it, was enough to enchant me. I`d draw dancers en pointe, frozen in pirouette mode. I`d even try it myself, one arm resting on the back of a kitchen chair, en pointe on my school shoes. There were no ballet schools in rural Ireland back then. No ballet shoes. No tutus. And no record players. At least, not in our house.

Anyway, I`d have been more Miss Piggy….

Miss Piggy Lives her dream with Nureyev

Miss Piggy Lives her dream with Nureyev

…than Natalie Portman



I was content enough to draw and dream and wave my arms about to the music in my head.

And now, I get to see my kid dance. How thrilling is that?

Getting on your toes is a big part of the ballet dream. Then you finally get to feel like you`re a real ballerina.

But first Mum has to sew the ribbons on…

I watched the required youtube video. And painstakingly attended the task. Trying to recall the little bit of needlework Sister Attracta had drilled into my reluctant fingers when I was ten.

Then,as I got the hang of it, I imagined myself backstage with the corps de ballet. Chat and laughter about the evening`s performance, perhaps. Tension among those heading out onstage. The pounding of boards as the dancers leaped and landed. Swathes of satin and netting and feathers bustling about the place. Sweat. Tears. Music. Oh! the music!

And a little group of us, in the midst of that, removing layers of theatrical make up and stitching our ballet shoes.

I tried on the pumps when I was done.Why, my muscular runner`s calves took on a certain elegance when criss crossed with satin peachy ribbon. True, a leg wax would improve the overall effect. But, in a certain light, and in the dim distance, I might actually pass for a ballerina in those shoes.

Oh, a girl can dream.

I left my dreams of Swan Lakes and Nutcrackers and handed the beribboned pumps to my daughter.

“Great, thanks!” And she raced upstairs. Oh, I could understand her rush to try them on in the comfort of her bedroom. To pirouette and stretch and plié out of sight of taunting brothers.

But she paused midflight, and called down to me,

“Oh, and you also have to sew elastic onto each one. But don`t worry, there`s a youtube video to show you how”

Aaarrgghhh! I looked at my runners, tossed in the corner forlorn and neglected. There was no way I was going to miss the next day`s run. I would not going to let two bits of elastic, and a young girl`s dream get in my way this time. I would find a way to make an hour for myself And after that I would get the youtube link, watch the damn how-to-stitch-elastic-onto-pumps clip  and stitch those peachy pesky pumps again.

A girl can dream.

And Red Hen can have dreams of her own too.