Photos by Aida Zuniga
Perhaps the last form of theatrical entertainment to attract a blind person would be the ballet: no speaking, no singing, just dancing.
However, thanks to technology, I can now understand the fascination with sugar plum fairies dancing in your head.
Like so many Baby Boomers, I was first introduced to Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, a truncated orchestral version of his Nutcracker ballet music, while watching Disney’s Fantasia. Of course, Tchaikovsky crafted the Suite as a purely symphonic piece where the ballet is a feast for both the eyes and ears.
The first characters most Boomers actually tied to The Nutcracker were the animated fairies, fish, flowers, mushrooms, and leaves from Fantasia (1940). The Nutcracker ballet didn’t really become a popular annual tradition in this country until the 1960s, the result of George Balanchine's staging, adapted from E.T.A. Hoffmann's tale, “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.”
The animated images from Fantasia probably remained with me longer than most people, since I actually saw the film but was totally blind by the time I first attended the ballet.
Those fluid, colorful and quirky animated characters from the movie morphed back to their original forms in the ballet: the dancing mushrooms in the “Chinese Dance” routine (credit the Three Stooges as the model for the animation) became a nimble Chinese danseur leaping out of a box 3 feet into the air; the mesmerizing goldfish who used her flowing tail as a veil became one beautiful barefoot Arabian babe in a gossamer skirt and cascading veil, using her sensuous and controlled movements – arching her back, turning around on one foot and moving in serpentine patterns – to touch her head with one foot and stretch out like a cat; a plant with its stem body and leaves for arms and legs became an acrobatic Cossack who jumped through a red, white and green striped hula hoop.
So how does a blind man know all these details? Elementary, my dear Watson: audio description.
With a FM receiver around my neck and an earpiece in my ear, a live narrator at the Arsht Center’s Ziff Ballet Opera House in Miami described the action on stage, transmitting it to me in real time as the music played and the dancers danced.
It was also helpful to have a “touch tour” before the show, giving size and shape to many of the stage props and costumes. I did enjoy communing with the Mouse King’s head and body armor.
I never knew it was snowing at the top of the ballet and that several guests arrived with their children at Dr. Stahlbaum’s home. I didn’t know that a father picked up his little daughter to admire the Christmas tree lights or that the grandfather clock lit up when it struck eight.
I learned that the mysterious Drosselmeyer was dressed in a black cape and top hat, and brought with him several large toy boxes; his first gift being two wind-up dolls, Harlequin and Columbine, who soon performed a sprightly arabesque, which enlightened me as to why the audience was applauding.
I had a serious ‘duh’ moment when I found out that Drosselmeyer was cracking nuts with a wooden nutcracker and passing out the nuts to everyone. My inner voice clarified it for me: “It’s The Nutcracker ballet after all, you knucklehead!”
Marie’s brother Fritz grabbing and stomping on the nutcracker was another important piece of otherwise missing info. Drosselmeyer sneaking in as Marie slept, repairing the nutcracker with a magic tool which he “twisted this way and that,” placing it back gently in Marie’s arms, continued to add layers of dimension to Tchaikovsky’s wonderful music.
Subtle descriptions like “the guests hand their coats and wraps to the maid” and “Frau Stahlbaum kisses Marie on the forehead and takes her candle” and “the Prince places the Mouse King’s crown on Marie’s head” added nuance I would otherwise have missed.
Of course, as the music swelled and a large group of mice surrounded Marie “while the lights flashed wildly on the Christmas tree as it started to grow and grow towards the ceiling,” I got the distinct impression the plot was thickening.
Yup, the Calvary came over the hill – the now full-sized Nutcracker rallied the troops of toy soldiers against the rat pack. Kudos to Marie for throwing her slipper at the Mouse King to distract him long enough for the Nutcracker to run him through…and it’s a good thing I found out that the Nutcracker turned into a Prince after the battle.
The only thing better than a snowflake dancing en pointe is sixteen snowflakes dancing en pointe “leaping, swirling and twirling across the stage, forming various patterns on the floor, then taking delicate steps with graceful arm movements and pirouetting into a V-shape.”
How else would I know that The Sugar Plum Fairy found out about the “terrible fight with the mice and their King and the Prince’s transformation from Nutcracker to Prince” if he didn’t “act it out to Sugar Plum with gestures?”
Certainly the "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" was a delight, “her movements exquisitely timed to the mysterious fairy music, imbued with a celesta, twirling upstage” before summoning all the sweets and friends to dance in celebration for Marie and the Prince. The festivities included ten foot tall Mother Ginger, in her enormous purple, green and scarlet costume, with her seven children, the Polichinelles, emerging from under her hoop skirt to dance for our heroine.
A highlight was the "Waltz of the Flowers" where, along with the corps de ballet, Dewdrop danced the extravagant waltz and, according to my narrator, “The large flowing movements and leaps were graceful, even though the music was robust.”
The Grand Pas de Deux between Sugar Plum and her Cavalier, Prince Coqueluche, with its divinely romantic underscore, apparently galvanized the audience. I now know that the Prince helped his “beautiful companion” spin en pointe and then she “leaped and he spun her around and sat her on his shoulder, lifted and held her by the waist straight into the air, and then held her straight on an angle with her feet barely touching the floor.”
After the grand finale, full of abundant color and activity, Marie and the Prince “appear in a sleigh, heading off to the land where the sun meets the moon.”
And I too was over the moon after knowing what the heck was going on.
If you would like to learn more about the audio descriptive service at the Arsht, go to: http://www.arshtcenter.org/
Insight for the Blind was thrilled to produce recorded audio description for the first time in 2015! In collaboration with the Miami City Ballet, Lighthouse of Broward, and the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, Insight recorded and produced audio description which was made available each night that live audio description was not possible. Through the partnership of these agencies, 100% of these Nutcracker performances were made accessible, through audio description, to the blind and visually impaired. We look forward to many more such collaborations in 2016, and beyond! -Matt Corey