As the end of the year approached, I, like many around the world, rushed once again to the theater, to see one of the most popular and endearing performances of all time: The Nutcracker. Holding my daughter by her tiny hand, for the first time together in this otherwise repetitive yet never boring “adventure,” we crossed the parking lot warmly gleaming under the afternoon sun, dragged our feet through the rustling leaves, kicking up little clouds of dust, click-clack-ed our way up the monumental —yet so tiny—set of stairs (reminding me of their Chichen Itza’s pyramid predecessors, with their “call of nature” acoustical effects), and walked through the imposing gates of Mexico City’s Auditorio Nacional — a building of a grandeur on scale with the size of the city cradling it, yet of a simplicity that only Mexican architecture can boil down from its diverse stream of cultures; grabbed each on the way a Lindt chocolate kindly offered by young girls dressed as elves, and then made our way through the sea of tall and short spectators also rushing to find their place in this almost 10,000-seat performing hall; yes, found ours, carefully chosen close enough to the stage so that my three year old daughter could easily absorb every color, move and detail of the performance, and sighed in satisfaction as we sat down facing two gigantic Nutcrackers projected on the still closed, red velour curtain. Nothing like the banks of snow I remember passing as a child, at this time of the year, nothing like the small opera house I was used to, where my father worked and which I knew like the palm of my hand. All the same, yet completely new.
And there we sat, mostly in silence, together with the rest of our family and the other thousands of parents and children, and breathed the beauty of the show like oxygen. The Nutcracker is all about BEAUTY. The beauty of the melody, harmonies, orchestration; the costumes, lights, and scenery; the beauty of the story interleaving vulnerability and power, family and independence, reality and dream, good winning over evil. I watched the young dancers with olive skin, wide smiles and that enthusiasm typical of the performer feeding on the adrenaline rush generated by the mob that expands in the penumbra, beyond the lip of the stage. Between scenes, with contagious Mexican enthusiasm we the mob applauded, cheered and created a most wonderful interaction with these performers, an interaction that needed no tablet or other technological device. But… is The Nutcracker oxygen? After all, it is not a necessity like food or shelter. It is not art as reaction to the current developments of society and politics. Why is it not boring, obsolete? Where does all this excitement come from? Why is it still meaningful?
As I sat there, watching the show and holding my child in my arms, I could not help but think of all the mothers in the world who at that very moment hugged their children safe from bombs, under roofless improvised shelters, maybe at the price of their lives. I did not wish them shelter and food; I wished them The Nutcracker. I remembered how, growing up in communist Romania at the peak of its dictator’s insanity, at a time when there was no food in stores, no heat in houses or schools, nor running hot water, we did have theater, we did have ballet, and we did have The Nutcracker. While we did not have much access to art as it was developing in the rest of the world at that time (as that may have periled the propaganda of a deformed communist system), it was art in its more traditional and apparently less dangerous form (see Tchaikovsky, Moliere, Rembrandt) that kept us dignified. It was this art, with its beauty, passion and hidden message, which empowered us as human beings, gave us reason to live and laugh, and kept us from feeling inferior in a world that was advancing, while we were frozen in time and deprived of the most common necessities. It was art education that made us, children, grow up confident and whole, able to stay afloat later, once we were thrown into the whirlpool of a world ages ahead of what our imagination would have even been able to envision.
As I sat there, it dawned on me that, whether in Syria, United States of America or Mexico, either forbidding or reducing the investment in art education, by negligence, strategy or greed, is the single biggest mistake we can make for our future, for our children, for our survival as a civilized species. We, in the US, argue much about STEAM vs. STEM. Not only should there be no argument about this, but I dare to say that A should be able to stand proud on its own. Art is humanity’s catalyst, and the artist should not have to struggle, so often neighbor to the beggar in failing to make a living. I remember my father, who happened to be an acclaimed ballet dancer of that otherwise non-illustrious period; he was treated, relatively speaking, like royalty for having embraced art for a living and, more importantly, for being able to carry its beauty and virtuosity with every cell of his body and mind. While those in power did not understand well the need for water or food, they did understand that art was important both to keep its subjects alive and to show them in a good light to the rest of the world. And why are we as a society (healthy and wealthy otherwise) unable to understand this now? Why are we not able to see past our immediate finances?
As I sat there, I thought about how lucky I was to grow up so immersed in art. I studied music and piano for over 20 years, and although at the end of that period I concluded that I would not make a satisfactory artist, I found that the entire process was fundamental to my formation as a human being. Art provided perspective and detachment in approaching any problem in life, it enhanced abstract thinking, and last but not least it opened gates to pleasure and beauty that one would not experience otherwise. And eventually, I chose a profession that helps to foster art, whether it is by helping design a school or a recital hall. And that helps raise the A in our society to an honorable status. Because I wish my daughter and all the children in this world to continue to have the chance to see The Nutcracker for many Decembers to come.