The maestro bows, raises his baton, and the music, Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, swells out over the audience like a storm rolling over the city, swaying the trees with a cool, clean wind and flooding the streets with sweet rain.
The dancers, members of the San Francisco Ballet Company, come onto the stage. Motion flows into motion, movement into movement. They float effortlessly into the lights. The bright colors, the colors of spring and fall and Christmas, blur together. The memories of other images come, memories of a small flock of white swans locking their wings and landing at dawn on a misty, still pond; of eagles soaring in the sky until they are high enough to touch the clouds; of the red and gold leaves of autumn swirling with the wind. And with this poetry of motion and with the rising and falling of music, the dancers spin their fantasy.
The dreams of a little girl come alive. A toy soldier becomes a prince with a white horse and transports her to an enchanted kingdom. Flowers come to life, and snowflakes dance across the stage. The Nutcracker is an exhibition of the fantasy and beauty of ballet.
What is always amazing about ballet, when it’s performed well, is the emotion of it, emotion the dancers communicate with the grace and beauty of movement. Motion that, like the great paintings of the old masters, can lift the soul and change it.
Backstage, one of the flowers, Melanie Watts, 18, a member of the San Francisco Singles Ward, San Francisco California Stake, awaits the cue to go on. The effect a ballet performance has on an audience is an important part of her involvement in the art.
“It gives me great pleasure,” she says smiling, “knowing that when I’m out there on stage I’m making people happy. I consider ballet a service.”
A month before the Nutcracker performance, I talked with Melanie after one of her classes at the San Francisco School of Ballet. Melanie’s two-hour class was nearly finished when I entered the classroom. Sunlight streamed down from a skylight onto the rows of students. The teacher stood in front of the students demonstrating a series of techniques.
“Enchainement of echappé 2nd, relevé devant, and relevé avant,” she said as she moved, repeating the names of the techniques in French.
The students repeated the movements again and again and again. It is only after years of practice that the refinement good ballet requires begins to take shape. The San Francisco Ballet’s school is considered to be one of the best in the world. It demands from its students a high level of dedication and achievement.
Because of the success of its dancers, competition to get into and stay in the school’s professional program is tough. The school’s scholarship programs come from donations, and competition for scholarships is even greater. Only students who make satisfactory progress are able to continue in the program, and only students who excel are awarded scholarships.
Although Melanie has studied with the school for three summers while finishing high school and is now on a full scholarship, she doesn’t consider ballet to be the most important part of her life.
“I was first exposed to ballet when I was eight,” she said. “I fell in love with the beauty and grace of it. I’ve been studying ballet ever since then. It’s an incredible discipline. I’m taking something God gave me, and I’m perfecting it. It’s a part of my life, but it’s not all of it. Ballet isn’t everything. There’s life after ballet. More importantly, there’s life after life. I want to have a family, and I want to be with my Father in Heaven again. With the gospel we are able to see life in a bigger round. The moment I know I’m losing with the Lord or that my interest in the Church isn’t strong, that’s when it’s time to quit. One day if I’m not living the gospel and I’m a great artist, I know there will be something missing in my life and that I won’t be happy.”
The instructor stopped the class, and Melanie walked over and slumped down on the floor next to me, wiping her head with a towel. Her red hair was wet with perspiration.
“How did it go?” I asked.
“With ballet,” she said laughing, “even if it does go well it’s not good. You’re never perfect, and there’s always room for improvement. You go to class and what you get is criticism. A couple of days ago the instructor gave me a correction, and the next day I thought to myself, ‘I’m going to get this right,’ and I did. But all my teacher said was that my arms weren’t right.”
Criticism is a necessary part of ballet, Melanie explained. That’s how you become good. The more the better, but it can be devastating to your self-image. “I’m amazed at how people survive without the gospel,” she said, “and without a close family. The second I walk into class I give it 100 percent, but the minute I walk out the door I’m somewhere else. The greatest strength we can have comes from the Lord. It would be difficult to imagine doing anything without his help. One night I was depressed. I was homesick. I wanted to go home and give up. I was too upset to sleep, so I pulled out my patriarchal blessing and read. It made me feel so incredibly good to know my Father had said something to me. We can accomplish anything we want that’s right, if we put our families and the gospel first.”
Melanie’s family lives in Utah, and she boards with LDS families in San Francisco. But because she has been performing since she was nine years old she has been exposed to a lot of different lifestyles.
“I’m grateful for the opportunities I’ve had as a dancer,” she said. “But it’s also been tough. There are lots of temptations. When I was 12, I went on tour for five weeks with a ballet company. I was offered wine at Thanksgiving. No one there knew what my beliefs were. I didn’t have to refuse the wine, but I knew my parents trusted me, and I knew what they expected. Similar temptations still confront me, and I can only thank my parents because they taught me and prepared me, when I was still young, to think for myself and to make correct decisions. I know I can be the best at ballet that I can be and still live the gospel. I have to know my limitations and not put myself in situations that make the struggle too difficult. And I rely heavily on my family. My best friends are my family.
When you talk to Melanie it’s easy to see her love for her family and for the gospel by her enthusiasm for it. And as for her love of ballet, that’s also easy to see.
There is a change in the music, and dancers dressed as flowers move onto the stage as a swirl of color. There is emotion to it, emotion the dancers communicate with the grace and beauty of movement, emotion that like the great paintings of the old masters can lift and change the soul.