It all looked so simple. Last Saturday afternoon, my wife, two young daughters, and I ventured to the local performing arts center for the Academy of Russian Ballet’s 2012 rendition of “The Nutcracker Suite”. It was delightful. The experience was unforgettable thanks to a spacious auditorium with (mercifully) copious legroom, nostalgic sights and sounds of Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece, and most importantly, the rapt attention of my three and five year-old daughters. It was a joy to watch my own neophyte dancers sitting at the edge of their seats, humming the music, and clapping furiously at the end of favorite segments. For a little over two hours, we were part of an entranced audience watching Herr Drosselmeyer, Clara, the Nutcracker and the Sugar Plum Fairy weave the magical tale of fear and loss, joy and wonder. And everybody loved it.
No matter how often you have seen or heard “The Nutcracker”, there is a timeless sense of wonder about it. Being no exception, Saturday’s performance had music that was lilting and pristine. The dancing was, at times, bounding and joyful, while at other times, lithe and haunting. With the exception of a few honest missteps, the coordination of toddlers and elders, preteens and adult stars created a fluidity and seamlessness to the fantasy narrative. As I said before, it all looked so simple. But, of course, it wasn’t. This was extremely hard work.
I confess, I am still learning the art of appreciating dance. Bringing my two daughters to their weekly tap/ballet dance class for the last three years has been an education. The outfits, the stretching, the stances, and dance routines are slowly being ingrained in my daughters, but they are sinking into me as well. The first full recital I attended caused my jaw to drop not because my three year-old’s much-practiced dance lasted merely five minutes, but instead due to the stunning performance by the older dancers. How, I marveled, did these dancers evolve from halting toddlers taking direction from off-stage instructors to confident, smiling performers effortlessly lost in a routine that had become second nature?
The answer to this has become increasingly apparent to me. It is a matter of time, talent, and devotion to the craft of dancing. Now this may seem to be a most obvious, if not unenlightened observation. After all, what worthy endeavor doesn’t require these elements for success? But here is the irony and paradox: so many of us give haughty lip service to the notion of hard work which yields dividends, when in fact we constantly seek shortcuts to success. Parents advise us, priests guide us, teachers instruct us, and coaches mentor us – and yet we often just don’t get it. To arrive at the proper end, we must start at an honest beginning. As famed ballet choreographer and icon, George Balanchine once said,
“First comes the sweat…then comes the beauty – if you’re very lucky and have said your prayers.”
There are so many clichés, that they sound…well, cliché. “There are no shortcuts to success.”, “You cannot dream yourself into character, you must hammer and forge yourself one.”, “Slow and steady wins the race.” And yet, do we follow this advice? Perhaps for a short time. We achieve some goals, and “postpone” others. It seems that there is one primary reason for our failure to follow the steps to success of which we speak so glowingly and neglect so brazenly. That reason is freedom. We don’t want to lose it – and working toward a goal requires discipline, steadfastness, and above all, sacrifice. And sacrifice hurts. I want to eat what I want, drink what I want, act how I want, do what I want when I want. And it seems that in the balancing scales, freedom and self-indulgence trump sacrifice and achievement. We admire those who are willing to take the leap and pursue their dream. At times, we fool ourselves into believing that we likewise endure for our highest priorities and goals, when in actuality we securely cling to our own comforts while dreaming of a hazy future time to think and act anew.
“The Nutcracker Suite” in 2012 made me reconsider this. In a performance lasting over two hours, there were many examples of sacrifice and achievement. The beauty of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s music, the ornate and diverse apparel created by costume and set designers, and the dexterous, exact steps of the dancers exuded artistic pride and seamless grace. But with sharper consideration, one had to imagine sheets of discarded musical drafts, callused hands, twisted ankles, and tenacious muscle pulls. To achieve the freedom of an envisioned ideal, the creators and performers of The Nutcracker had to sacrifice freedom. Paradoxical? Perhaps. But it depends on what one’s definition of freedom is. If freedom means self-indulgence, pleasure, and instant gratification, then those who put on the show had lost their freedom. But if freedom means, setting goals, delaying gratification, and achieving something of glorious merit, seeing one’s dream come true, and partaking in something approximating the true, the good, and the beautiful – then it wasn’t freedom that they left behind in their hard work and goal-setting – it was freedom they ultimately achieved. And what a glorious achievement.
The paradox of sacrificing freedom to achieve a greater freedom is, in fact, no paradox. The freedom of tepid effort and ill-defined purpose is not freedom, but slavery. It is akin to the notion that wallowing in decadent, selfish sin is truly slavery, while striving toward Christ’s structured, disciplined meaning and dignity is true freedom. The goal is grand and the price to pay is worth it. We are only asked to value the goal, honestly appraise the effort required, pick up when we falter, and go to it. It is the imperfect, stuttering course that leads a wayward, but earnest toddler to become a graceful and glorious dancer.
George Balanchine once showed a friend his favorite pair of Italian shoes and remarked,
“When I see shoes like that, I want to meet the man who made them and shake his hand.”
And Pope John Paul II once declared,
“The future starts today, not tomorrow.”
Shouldn’t our goal, like those toiling in private and gracefully performing in public, be worthy of respect (by our God, ourselves, and perhaps, our community)? And shouldn’t we stop excusing ourselves, begin our sacrifice, and work toward that goal now?
Which brings me back to “The Nutcracker Suite”. It was and is graceful, seamless, beautiful. A holiday treat to say the least. It all looked so simple. And of course it wasn’t. Of course it wasn’t. Nor should it be.