Man is constantly testing his limits. How high can he fly, how fast can he run, how many Swedish meatballs and squares of Monterey Jack cheese can he cram on a small paper plate during happy hour? The parameters are constantly changing.
But this holiday season, one reporter undertook the ultimate challenge: How many performances of "The Nutcracker" could one man attend in a single weekend without losing his mind?
Each year, more than 2 million people watch the popular Christmas ballet about a young girl (Marie in some versions, Clara in others) given a nutcracker doll by her mysterious godfather and the fantastic dream it inspires.
But what would be the effects on the central nervous system of repeated viewings of the Nutcracker and Mouse King squaring off with their toy swords and overly revealing tights?
How many times could one watch the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy before rushing the stage and shrieking: "FOR GOD'S SAKE, SOMEBODY MAKE HER STOP!?"
Incredibly, there was no raw data available.
A swami from India, Maujgiri Maharaj, once stood continuously for 17 years while performing the Tapasya, or penance. When sleeping, he would lean against a plank. We are engaged in a similarly lofty experiment of the mind here.
What follows is a chronicle of our Nutcracker test conducted last weekend, as best can be recalled.
Friday, 7: 30 p.m.: Well, this is it. I'm nervous, but eager to get started.
Tonight's performance is by the Donetsk Ballet from the Republic of Ukraine, which is "internationally acclaimed," according to the program.
Before the house lights dim, I read up on the history of "The Nutcracker." It was first performed in 1892 in St. Petersburg, Russia. The critics ripped it. The Sugar Plum Fairy was pronounced beefy and unattractive and apparently displayed all the grace of a Siberian washer-woman.
Following this catastrophe, it was performed sparingly in Russia and Europe over the next half-century.
In this country, George Balanchine breathed new life into "The Nutcracker" in 1954 with restructured choreography -- and (presumably) a Sugar Plum Fairy who did not bear a strong resemblance to Yogi Berra.
When the curtain rises, the Donetsk performance proves to be fairly humdrum. The kids are cute as the dickens, but the opening street scene and the scene where the party guests arrive both seem to lack energy, and audience response is tepid.
Aram Manoukian, as the godfather, Herr Drosselmeyer, dominates the performance and is the obvious locus of its humor, although with his white powdered wig, black tights, ruffled white shirt and blue velvet jacket, he looks like an eerie combination of Thomas Jefferson, Rudolf Nureyev and Travis Tritt.
The woman playing Marie (Svetlana Yeletskaia) is not quite so riveting to watch. Her movements seem almost lethargic at times and her tight smile throughout the dances suggests someone trying to be pleasant while enduring an enema.
Things pick up a bit during the Battle Scene between the mice and soldiers and the Journey Through the Land of Snow. But during the intermission, I overhear a woman telling an acquaintance: "How does it feel to watch an over-the-hill ballerina?' obviously referring to Yeletskaia.
Ouch. Act II seems equally listless up until the Waltz of the Flowers, which gets a big hand from the audience. But things don't improve markedly from there.
At one point I look over at my 11-year-old daughter, who grins bravely but seems to be struggling to stay awake. By the final curtain, she looks like someone slipping into the initial stages of general anesthesia.
Leaving Kraushaar Auditorium in a driving rainstorm, I am enveloped in gloom.
If the rest of the performances are this desultory, this Nutcracker experiment will be short-lived, indeed.
A couple more of these and I'd crack like a two-minute egg.
School for the Arts
Saturday 2 p.m.: Pulling up to the school's marquee on Cathedral Street, a statistic gleaned from earlier research leaps to mind: There are now over 230 major productions of "The Nutcracker" nationwide. And that doesn't even take into account the hundreds of small, community productions put on every year.
For some reason, this proves oddly comforting. Maybe I just hit the Donetsk Ballet on an off-night. Who knows, maybe they had a rough flight over here. Or maybe their luggage ended up in Des Moines. That would throw my performance off, if it happened to me.
Thankfully, from the opening curtain, it's clear the School for the Arts' "Nutcracker" is much more high-energy and much more well, fun.
The fellow in the role of Marie's little brother Fritz (Rodney Pallanck) does an excellent job playing the type of sneering, hyper little pain-in-the-neck you want to wrestle to the ground and pump full of Ritalin.
In fact, the entire cast is wonderful. And yet the first signs of "Nutcracker" overdose are beginning to manifest themselves.
The mice, for instance, don't seem quite as cute as they did last night; one is seized with the urge to use the lobby phone and perhaps call the Orkin man.
The dance scenes in the Kingdom of Snow, semi-charming the first time, now seem interminable, and the backdrop, a snowy forest, seems as exotic as a strip mall in a Buffalo suburb.
Tiny, nagging thoughts go through your mind in the initial stages of a "Nutcracker" OD.
How can Marie sleep through all that racket, as she's supposedly doing? My God, there's a full orchestra playing and the Snow Queen and 19 Snowflakes are pounding across the stage!
OK, maybe they're not the Green Bay Packers in terms of foot-striking force. But I'm 20 rows from the stage and I can hear their slippers slapping the floor.
Yet there's Marie, five feet away from the dancers, snoozing like someone pressed a handkerchief soaked in ether to her face.
But those are just the cranky musings of a man who's watched two "Nutcrackers" in less than 17 hours, and is starting to show it.
The next performance on my schedule is only three hours away.
Sudbrook Arts Centre
Saturday, 7: 30 p.m.: Entire forests have been defoliated in order to explain the enduring popularity of "The Nutcracker."
The story line is one everyone can relate to: a middle-class family getting together on Christmas Eve; a young girl's delight in a simple gift; a fantastic dream from which one hopes to never awaken. The music is catchy and evokes equal measures of drama and whimsy.
The dancing is dazzling, and with a huge cast of kids, there's a built-in audience of parents, grandparents, friends, relatives, etc. which to count year after year.
All these elements are present in the enchanting performance by the Baltimore County Youth Ballet. So why am I feeling so unsettled? Is this little experiment getting to me that much?
I've brought along my 5-year-old son for emotional ballast. If I start to wig out, maybe he can talk me back.
And he loves this "Nutcracker," at least the first act, which is funny and fast-paced and dramatic. But my thoughts are growing darker.
This time, when the mouse is shot in the classic comedic interlude in the Battle Scene, I find myself thinking: Why can't those gutless toy soldiers use real bullets?
At intermission, we get a Sprite and a bag of blueberry Skittles in the lobby and my mood brightens.
But by the middle of Act II, when the smiling Mother Ginger and her Polichinelles take the stage, it's all I can do not to shoot to my feet and scream: "WHAT IS THIS ADULTERESS DOING HERE?!"
The Waltz of the Flowers seems to take, oh, two weeks. And by the time we get to the romantic, signature dance featuring the Nutcracker Prince and Sugar Plum Fairy, I'm thinking: pas de deux, schmas de deux. Where's the nearest exit?
As we sprint to the parking lot, I arrive at the frightening realization that in less than 15 hours, I'll be watching my fourth "Nutcracker" of the weekend.
As to how much longer this experiment can continue without serious emotional scarring, I cannot say.
Lyric Opera House
Sunday, 2 p.m.: Lord, I'm in a foul mood! And there's no reason for it, other than pure "Nutcracker" burnout.
The Lyric is bedecked for the holidays. This is a major league performance by the Indianapolis Ballet Theatre. In the lobby, they're selling cappucino and latte, brownies and biscotti. Everywhere there are well-dressed men, women and children with smiling faces.
Nevertheless, I sense myself slipping into the kind of depression that author William Styron once described as "a shroud slowly descending."
The Indianapolis Ballet performance is magnificent. The party scene is, as advertised, "vibrant." Tatiana Pali and Karen Scalzitti (as the Sugar Plum Doll/Sugar Plum Fairy) are first-rate dancers. The staging is superb.
At least, those are all observations a person in a normal frame of mind would make. In this case, it's my wife who's making them. Me, I'm staring up at the ceiling from my balcony seat and doing a series of deep-breathing exercises while silently repeating: "Everything will be OK, everything will be OK."
I white-knuckle it through the intermission. But when Act II opens with Clara and the Nutcracker Prince riding across a shimmering lake on the back of a white swan, I feel myself getting weepy and crying out to my wife: "Where are the damn PETA people when you need them?"
That's it, I'm losing it, big-time. Four "Nutcrackers" in three days is my limit.
There's probably an 8 p.m. performance tonight in Columbia or Bel Air or someplace, but I won't be there.
Not if they're going to abuse helpless little swans like that.
Pub Date: 12/21/96