At the ballet school where my daughters studied dance, the only adult male dancers were several of the teachers. When it came time for yearly performances of “The Nutcracker” and the annual spring story ballet, then, professional male dancers were hired to partner with the all-female senior company. Although I had seen many ballets in my life, I was newly aware of one striking fact: men were props. And I am not the only person to observe this. Speaking of the role of male dancers in classical ballet, the renowned Brazilian dancer, Marcelo Gomes, remarked in an interview, “it can seem like the man is merely there to make the woman look good.”
Ironically, then, this is exactly what I have always loved about the 1977 production of “The Nutcracker” by the American Ballet Theater, with Gelsey Kirkland as Clara and Mikhail Baryshnikov as the Prince. The pas-de-deux in the second act stretches Gomes’s definition of the limited male role to new heights. Baryshnikov’s tender gaze directs the audience’s eyes toward Kirkland’s powerful grace. His movements are the very embodiment of the worshipful lover, adoration personified.
Once “The Nutcracker” ends and the credits roll, I return to earth to discover that the partners in my life – family and friends – are not Baryshnikov. (And it’s not just that they can’t dance and don’t look amazing in tights.) They don’t reduce their lives to the simple task of adoring and partnering with me. They do not subordinate themselves to my every wish or movement. Instead, these dear people assert that they have needs and wishes, opinions and preferences, demands and aspirations that are all separate and distinct from my own. They are, in short, full humans who do not believe that their only role is to live as props in my life. Everything, literally, requires negotiation and compromise.
I remember reading “The Berenstain Bears and The Trouble with Friends” to my children when they were young. Sister Bear returns from playing with her new neighbor, Lizzy Bruin, and tells Mama Bear, “I had a lot of fun.” She adds, though, that Lizzy is “a little bossy – and a little braggy.” When Sister and Lizzy fight the next day, Sister says to Mama, “I’m never going to play with that Lizzy Bruin again! … When you play by yourself you can do what you want when you want without having to worry about that Lizzy Bruin!” “That’s true,” Mama Bear says, adding, “of course, there is one thing you can do much better by yourself … Be lonesome.”
Friendships do not thrive – or even survive – if you are determined to “do what you want when you want.” And the magical world of the adoring partner whose only role is to make us look good exists only in the enchanted land of fairy tales. In real life, no Baryshnikov is going to show up at our door, ready to erase themselves and exist for the sole purpose of being what we want them to be. Friends and family are going to show up as complete humans, a package of complex traits that necessitate acceptance, trade-offs, and concessions. If we don’t want to “be lonesome,” as Mama Bear warns, we will need to learn to live – kindly, gracefully, generously – with the braggy, bossy, and otherwise imperfect people in our lives.