Movie review: The Nutcracker (1977)

I continue to seek the magic that I experienced in a production of The Nutcracker performed by a professional ballet troupe and professional symphony several years ago. So far I have been not found it.

This film version of The Nutcracker left me wanting, perhaps because of the nature of the medium. Live performances are vastly different—they are richer sensory experiences. The sights and sounds are deeper and more immediate. You are closer to the action and music and acted upon by the ambiance that a live performance creates.

In this film version, I was delighted to hear the full score of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite. However, the music couldn’t wash over me like music performed by live symphonies. The dancing was superb. (Mikhail Baryshnikov and Gelsey Kirkland danced the roles of the Nutcracker/Prince and Clare, respectively.)

My favorite bits in the ballet? Probably the death of the Mouse King and the Dance of the Snowflakes. The Nutcracker battles the mice and their king, fatally stabbing the latter. Upon the mortal blow, the Mouse King invariably—in whatever production of The Nutcracker is being performed—strike a pose of rigor mortis. He dies on his back with his legs bent in the air. His mice underlings carry him away still in this pose.

The Dance of the Snowflakes is a beautiful, choreographed dance in a forest with snow softly falling. The dancers are dressed in white costumes and float silently to Tchaikovsky’s haunting music.

I also like the Arabian dancers in the Land of Sweets. They are one among several dancers from around the world. Honestly, except for the Chinese and Russian dancers, I had difficulty distinguishing the different dancers in this production of The Nutcracker. And the storyline in the Land of Sweets seemed different than what I was used to. (Productions of the Nutcracker vary with different interpretations of the ballet.)

I’ll keep looking for a performance of The Nutcracker reminiscent of the one that I enjoyed so much. After several decades, the professional troupe that performed my favorite rendition of the ballet has sadly folded. Perhaps one of these years I can catch a traveling professional ballet company teaming up with a professional symphony—and be moved by the magic.

Book review: March: Book 1

John Lewis. He speaks, I listen. Congressman Lewis is one of those rare figures for me in the public realm who command a moral high road and a sense of gravitas. He came out of the civil rights movement of the 1960s to occupy a space of integrity and values that I believe more of our public officials should occupy.

So when I learned in a podcast that the third book in his graphic novel trilogy was being published, I was intrigued. How did I not know of this trilogy? What bits of his life story would be highlighted in visual form?

I started at the beginning, with Book One in the March trilogy. I was hooked. I’m not a graphic novel fan girl. I frankly am not hip to the graphic novel genre and might raise hackles by my assumption born out of ignorance that the graphic novel developed in parallel with or from comic books and Japanese manga. Clearly, they are different but share the same storytelling modus operandi: tell stories through a combination of words and images.

Graphic novels seem to be picture books for adults, a form of art that brings words more to life by showing scenes juxtaposed in ways that highlight the words or illuminate bits of a story that remain unspoken. What was the nonviolent confrontation with police and angry mobs like for the people who occupied lunch counters in the early 1960s? Words can only go so far to describe it, but illustrations that show the struggle against peaceful demonstrators can and do reveal a deeper experiential story of what it was like.

March: Book One uses the storytelling vehicle of a woman with two young boys visiting John Lewis at his congressional office. From their questions and interest in his life, we are privy to key bits in his life. The story starts with John Lewis’s childhood, specifically his desire to be a preacher and his love of the chickens that he raised (and how the two intersected—a delight to me who never grew out of my childhood love of silliness). The book continues to describe defining moments in his life, his growth towards adulthood, and his participation in the civil rights movement.

An important moment in his childhood was when an uncle took him on a road trip north to Buffalo, New York. John’s world suddenly expanded in a massive way. He saw a different way for blacks and whites to exist—as neighbors. While surely not an idyllic place in terms of race relations, Buffalo offered a stark contrast to what he was experiencing growing up in the South.

Other important moments in his life unfold: preaching as a teenager, meeting Martin Luther King, Jr., attending college, encountering Jim Lawson and the burgeoning nonviolence movement, participating in lunch counter sit-ins, and becoming a part of SNCC. The common thread through all of these events was his drive towards social justice, the lynchpin for him even today.

March is wonderfully done—both the storyline and the illustrations. The combination of the words with images drives home the message of social justice. In a time when one would hope that March is relevant as a history of who we were and what our country went through, March is also relevant today as a reminder of who we are, what our values are, and the importance of social justice.

In light of recent events, March can be a depressing realization that the struggle for social justice is being swamped by the waves of bigotry, xenophobia, and misogyny gripping the nation. It can also be a rallying cry: if the darkness of social injustice could be rolled back before, then it can be again.

To understand the present and the future, you need to revisit the past. People forget the lessons of the past, and history tends to repeat itself, fueled by those ignorant of—or willfully disregarding—the past. Those active in the 1960s may in some way see today as the same struggle, or an entirely new incarnation of the struggle. The struggle for social justice, John Lewis’s raison d’etre, continues.

In March, I learned of another graphic novel that had profound implications: the 1958 comic book Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story, which inspired the activists of the 1960s. Who might March inspire and what will be the outcome of that inspiration?

Kissing the bricks

One thing that you cannot escape in Indiana is its automotive history and love of racing, particularly in central Indiana, which is home to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Over the last several years, I have made the rounds of automobile museums throughout the state and seen umpteen early cars in various venues. I’ve heard the tales of titans in the US automotive industry and often walk by “Crazy” Carl Fisher‘s mausoleum in Crown Hill Cemetery. While I haven’t been to a running of the Indianapolis 500, I have enjoyed some events such as practice and the legendary Carb Day at the track.

Before The Greatest Month in Racing commenced this year, I decided to take a behind the scenes tour of the track and peruse their museum. The tour and the museum were well worth it.

The tour is quite a production. I made a reservation but lots of people just showed up and clamored on one of two buses. (On scheduled days, the ninety-minute tour runs several times a day. They seem to expand or contract the number of buses based on how many people show up.)

We started by being driven around the track, listening to a tour guide and a tape by Derek Daley. It was super cool to really feel the effect of the 9-degree banking of the corners as we slowly puttered around the track. To the race car drivers, this banking has the effect of 3 Gs on their bodies.

We stopped midway through what feels like a “canyon”. This is where the race starts and ends, with the media center, control tower, corporate suites, and victory podium consolidated in one area. As race car drivers approach this area, they are greeted by stands on either side of the track; they are kind of encapsulated by fans as they race through.

In contrast, we came to a slow halt and tumbled out of the bus at the famous Yard of Bricks, where the race starts and ends. The track was the brainchild of Carl Fisher, along with a few other automotive industry bigwigs. When the IMS opened in 1909, the track was composed of crushed stone sprayed with tar. It did not work out well. The third race (and first auto race) at the track had to be cut short due to fatalities and wrecks resulting from the road conditions. Fisher immediately had the track repaved with bricks. In 1961, the track was repaved again and all the bricks but a yard at the start/finish line were buried underneath the track as it exists today.

We had the opportunity to see the Yard of Bricks up close and personal—and to participate in the newish tradition of kissing them. (NASCAR winner Dale Jarrett initiated this tradition in 1996, which winners since have emulated.) It was a bit surreal to be standing on the track, in the canyon, looking over at victory podium. (I was struck by how compact the space was. Victory podium seems so large and the area so spacious on TV.)

After a few minutes of taking in the sites, snapping some photos, and, er, kissing the bricks, we got back in the bus and continued on around the track to access the media center and the control tower from the back.

The media center was built in 2000. As we waited for the elevator to take us up to the fourth floor, I poked my head inside an open doorway right off of the lobby. And I found myself looking into the room where press conferences are held—the surrealness of seeing places in person that I had only seen on TV continued.

No time to dally as we were going to the fourth floor where the media hangs out. And I do not mean a few media personnel but several hundred. The room is the size of a football field, the guide said, as I turned to look. The room, with rows of chairs and tables, can hold more than 300 people. A cafeteria in the same building feeds them all several meals a day.

Our next stop was to walk out the doors to the victory podium. Now I was seeing the canyon from the perspective of a Grand Prix winner. (Grand Prix winners gather at the top of the podium, Indianapolis 500 winners below.)

We sauntered into the adjacent building, the control tower. On the second floor, we visited where timing and scoring occurs. Special cameras monitor the cars as they zoom across the Yard of Bricks with each lap. We learned how special transponders on the cars (that’s what those antenna on the cars are for!) communicate with instruments in this room.

One corner is where broadcasts from IMS take place—another location seen on TV. A special inner room with glass windows is where three people responsible for monitoring and calling the scores hole up for the race.

In the control tower, we also saw corporate suites, where the lucky few can shell out money to watch the race in enclosed rooms overlooking the track. The suites go for $75,000 for 80 people for 15 days of festivities. A real bargain when you think about it, we were told. One hundred and twenty suites exist, but they had to create extra ones in 2016 for the 100th running of the race.

I was stuck on the idea that $75,000 is a bargain and then stunned by the realization that 75,000 x 120 is a heck of a lot of money when our guide relayed a story about Andrew Luck, the QB of the Indianapolis Colts. Apparently in 2016 Luck called to reserve a suite, but as luck would have it—sorry, I couldn’t resist—all suites had already been reserved. That was how the IMS came to construct additional corporate suites. It wouldn’t do to NOT have a corporate suite for Andrew Luck. (Of course, there was also a lot of money to be made.)

We meandered up to the tenth floor of the control tower to a different viewing suite—one for the sponsors of the race. With money, it seems, come benefits…and creature comforts.

We then rejoined the bus to putter through Gasoline Alley and the garage area. Many manufacturers and suppliers already had their names above the single garages in anticipation of the month of May. Special drivers (like four-time winners of the Indianapolis 500 Al Unser and A.J. Foyt) have their own offices with their names etched in the glass windows.

Afterwards we were let out at the front of the museum. The ninety minutes went by quickly. All through the tour, the guide outside of the bus and the recording of Derek Daley inside the bus gave us lots of interesting tidbits. In 1935 warning lights around the track were installed. In 2002, protective walling (SAFER barriers), developed at the University of Nebraska, was installed. A golf course—which I met by chance as I was looking for the IMS entrance—was built in 1929. Currently four holes exist inside the track (!) and 14 holes outside. The IMS fits 400,000 spectators (in the stands, suites, and infield). It is the largest sporting venue in the world.

I am glad that I ventured out on a cold—and what was ultimately rainy—day to tour the historic IMS—it’s on the Nation Register of Historic Places. I learned a lot of interesting facts, saw things I hadn’t before (or only on TV), and experienced bits of the IMS such as the Yard of Bricks that mere mortals normally do not. Right in time before the madness that is May in central Indiana…and before my next trip to watch the cars practice for the next Indianapolis 500.