Christmas School–Day Fourteen

Today was probably the highlight of our Christmas School experience–we went on a field trip to see the St. Louis Ballet perform the Nutcracker!

At the beginning of November, I learned that the ballet company offers a special performance for schools the day before their regular shows begin (I’m thinking it’s a glorified dress rehearsal). As part of this promotion, the tickets were only six dollars each, when normally they start around $25! I found out just in time to apply–registration ended the week I learned about it.

We were worried that the performance would be cancelled because of all the ice we had last night–and we got even more worried when most of the schools around here called off today. But, as they say, the show must go on, and it did. Even better, as Moose’s school was among the closed, I was able to let go of the guilt I was feeling over pulling him out of school for the day, even though his teacher had encouraged me to do so, saying she thought it would be a good experience for him.

All four children loved it. They were literally on the edges of their seats. Even though they have seen the performance on DVD, there’s just something different about seeing it in person–and this was their first ballet on top of it. It was also a good experience in theater etiquette, which all four children observed amazingly well. It was a fantastic experience, and I’m so happy I learned that this opportunity exists, even for homeschoolers. I’m hoping that it may become a new yearly tradition!

Although that was the bulk of our schooling for the day, we also had a few other Nutcracker related activities (again). We broke out The Kingfisher Book of Classic Christmas Stories yet again, this time to read a different version of “The Nutcracker.” We were not disappointed, as this story was very different from the one we read yesterday, and in some ways, different from both of the ballets we’ve seen.

Turkey and Bunny also each selected a picture from the Dover Nutcracker Ballet Coloring Book–this time to reflect their favorite part from today’s performance. It was, as always, interesting to see what they chose. Bunny picked the Sugar Plum Fairy (again–big surprise!), but Turkey picked the Spanish dancers. I had no idea.

This was a very memorable day of Christmas School!

Christmas School–Day Thirteen

Today was Nutcracker Day! I have loved the Nutcracker since I was a little girl, so I’m always excited to find a way to work it into school.

We listened to a recording of  The Nutcracker on CD while we were doing our Language Arts, as well as while we were doing all of our Nutcracker activities. This is my favorite recording of the Nutcracker, plus the set also has the bonus Symphony Number 4 on it. All four children have really come to appreciate this score, and I love that they can get so excited about classical music!

I picked up another great Dover coloring book, the Nutcracker Ballet Coloring Book. I only got one copy this time, so Turkey and Bunny have to share, but there are so many different pictures, they can both find something they like. They proved how very stereotypical they are today, when I asked each of them what their favorite part of the Nutcracker is, so I could find a good picture for them to color. Turkey said the battle between the Mouse King and the Nutcracker, and Bunny, of course, said anything with the Sugar Plum Fairy. It was exactly what I expected them to say, and yet I was very amused at their responses.

We also read The Story of the Nutcracker Ballet. This isn’t a particularly fantastic version of the book, but it was cheap, and readily available, so it works. It’s also a good introduction to the basic story of the ballet, so it’s acceptable, just not great. I’m still on the lookout for the perfect print edition of the Nutcracker, the only problem is, I don’t know what that is yet. I’ll know it when I see it, though, so I’ll just keep looking.

Because we all love “The Waltz of the Snowflakes,” we made some pretty crystal-like snowflake ornaments to go with Nutcracker Day. I picked up this set at Hobby Lobby for 50% off, which is one of the main reasons it’s one of my favorite places to buy craft kits. Parts of this activity were a little difficult for Turkey and Bunny, but with a little help from their teacher, they were able to make several new ornaments for our tree.

We rounded out Nutcracker day by watching the San Francisco Ballet Nutcracker. I’ve talked about this before–to put it simply, this is the best version of the Nutcracker I’ve ever seen, live or recorded. I love it, the children love it, it’s just completely awesome. We can’t watch it often enough!

Fine Arts Week

I had originally planned this week to be ballet-themed. I wasn’t going to make Turkey and Bunny dance, but I thought it would be good for them to learn about the history of dance, hear the stories behind some of the most famous ballets, listen to some of the music, etc. I found it to be especially timely approaching Christmas–we could spend at least a full day on just the Nutcracker, maybe even stretch it into a day and a half.

As I was planning, however, it quickly morphed into more of a study of fine arts than just ballet. Yes, that was still the primary focus, but we also be studied art and artists (specifically Degas, who did many paintings of ballerinas), music and composers (especially Tchaikovsy, without whom the modern shape of ballet would be very different!), and even a little cooking (not really a “fine” art I suppose, but how can you learn about ballet without taking the opportunity to make a Pavlova?).

I found lots of great resources, so I thought I’d share, in case you’re looking for some good reading, watching, or listening related to fine arts!

Full of information on the history of ballet, basic steps, stories of the ballet, everything. The accompanying CD has excerpts of some of the more memorable parts of many ballets, along with explanations of the music, and hints for what to listen for (the sound of cats meowing in The Sleeping Beauty, for example).

This book had wonderful summaries of some of the most famous ballet stories–we read both The Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake, and, if we hadn’t already had a storybook of it, would have read the Nutcracker, too. Like A Child’s Introduction to Ballet, it also comes with a CD.

This is part of a great series called “Getting to Know the World’s Greatest Artists.” While these books are very factual, and full of pictures of paintings, they also have humorous illustrations, and are written in a very conversational style. There seems to be a book for every major artist, too!

I found this book, especially the ending, to be quite moving. In fact, the first time I read through it, I teared up a little.

Similar to the above Degas book, this is part of the companion “Getting to Know the World’s Greatest Composers” series. I unintentionally chose only ballets by Tchaikovsky to read and listen to, so I thought we should learn about the composer himself. Turkey and Bunny especially liked learning about Tchaikovsky’s fear that his head would fall off while conducting in front of an audience, thereby forcing him to hold onto his beard the entire time. We’re looking forward to reading the Bach installment next year!

My favorite version of the Nutcracker ballet, ever. Helgi Tomasson did an awesome job of choreographing the ballet in a fresh new way, while holding true to the original story. There are also educator materials available on the San Francisco Ballet Company’s website, which are great resources for teaching about this ballet.

School: First Day of Winter

Even though the first day of winter was on a Sunday, and technically, we had suspended school for the Christmas holiday the previous Friday, we had a special school day on December 21.  Turkey and Bunny loved this, because Daddy got to come to school, which is something they are always asking for.  We had a special craft activity, a special story, and a movie to watch.

Our craft project for the day was Q-tip snowflakes.  They’re really beautiful, and easy for children to do on their own, because the snowflakes can be as simple or as complex as you want.  There’s a really cool gallery with pictures of actual snowflakes taken with a photo-microscope.  It’s totally worth checking out, and a great reminder of God’s attention to detail.


This craft was really fun, although I’m really glad I made a sample beforehand, to work out most of the kinks (who knew there was a correct side of the wax paper to use?).  There were still a few minor issues with the snowflakes coming apart when peeling them off the wax paper the second time around, but not as bad as my first two, and a little hot glue fixed them up just fine.

Daddy got to be the narrator for our winter story–Snow, by Roy McKie and P.D. Eastman.  The timing was perfect on this one, because Bunny had received this book as a Christmas present the Friday before (thanks, Uncle Ken!), so we got to read her copy, instead of looking for one at the library.  Turkey and Bunny loved it, and have been asking to read it constantly, as well as planning all the things they would like to do in the snow that they learned about in the book–it would have to snow here first, but that’s besides the point.  They can dream, right?

Finally, we watched our second viewing of the Nutcracker–the San Francisco Ballet production.  I had previewed the second half of this version of the classic ballet a few days prior, and because I was so impressed with it, decided it would make a nice addition to our winter lessons, especially with how beautiful the “Waltz of the Snowflakes” was.  Turkey and Bunny had already seen the Mikhail Baryshnikov production the previous week, in addition to reading the storybook, so they were familiar with the story. They both seemed to prefer the San Francisco Ballet production, in part due to the fact that Baryshnikov leaves out the Sugar Plum Fairy, while the San Francisco Ballet gives her her due.  Regardless, they both sat transfixed through the entire performance a second time, which I find impressive given their ages, and the fact that, as much as even I love the Nutcracker, the music is so soothing, it makes even me want to drift off to sleep!

We have really enjoyed our special change of the season activities for both Fall and Winter–now I just have to come up with something spectacular for spring!  I’m thinking something involving coffee filters, food coloring and pipe cleaners, but I haven’t decided for sure yet.  Stay tuned!

Review: San Francisco Ballet Nutcracker

I know I mentioned this production already in another post, but I thought it deserved it’s own review.  With all the different versions of the Nutcracker I’ve seen (both taped and live), this is, hands down, the best.  There are many things that set this apart from the other performances out there (particularly the popular Mikhail Baryshnikov production, which has superb execution by the aforementioned dancer, but lacks in other elements, such as the complete absence of the Sugar Plum Fairy, and the somewhat creepy portrayal of Drosselmeier), which make it both unique, and unbelievably beautiful.

First, the setting.  The choice to set it during the 1915 San Francisco World’s Fair is genius.  The time period isn’t too removed from the typical Victorian-era productions, but is different enough to give a totally new feel to the ballet.  And, with the ballet taking place in San Francisco, it was able to take advantage of both the beautiful “painted ladies” of that city in Clara’s victorian home, and the eye-catching pavilion from the Fair.

The costumes were also amazing.  Again, this is in part due to the early 20th century setting.  The dresses used in the first act were fresh and beautiful, and even the children’s clothing was different enough from typical productions to be noticeable.  And, the costumes in the second act were as beautiful as they always are, but also different and new (with the possible exception of the snowflakes and their queen, portrayed by the graceful Yuan Yuan Tan, who looked as traditional and wintry as one might hope). The colors used in the costumes from both acts were bold and attractive, and well-suited to being recorded.

The second act has always been my favorite part of the Nutcracker, and it was the same in this production.  The ladybugs, butterflies and dragonflies were adorable as they danced with the Sugar Plum Fairy.  And Vanessa Zahorian as the Sugar Plum Fairy was everything you would expect from that role–beautiful, kind, gracious and elegant.  The Chinese dance was especially delightful, especially with the addition of a very playful dragon.  The French Mirlitons were also enchanting, incorporating rhythmic gymnastics style ribbons into their dance.

The true genius of this particular performance, in my opinion, came near the end.  This production took Clara’s dream to the natural conclusion–not only did she dream her nutcracker a live prince (who was portrayed by Davit Karapetyan), she also saw herself transformed into an adult, able to dance with him.  So, instead of the pas de deux  being danced by the Sugar Plum Fairy and Prince, it was danced instead by Clara and her Prince. Now, the child Clara still may not have much of an actual role in the dancing, but the character of Clara at least gets more time, and more complex dances.  Maria Kochetkova was an excellent choice to play the adult Clara, capturing much of the innocence and sweetness that Elizabeth Powell brings to the child Clara character.

I would love to see this become the standard for Nutcracker performances.  I hope PBS (which is where I first become aware of this production in December) will continue to air this every year at Christmastime, as their choice of the best production of the Nutcracker out there.  Hopefully more people will begin to purchase this DVD from stores like Amazon, as well–I find this version to be much more child-friendly than the currently highest rated Baryshnikov production, which is not aging too well (mainly due to 70’s hairstyles and poor costuming choices).

I have to say, this production re-awakened a love for the Nutcracker that I had all but forgotten I had.

Christmas School: Nutcracker Resources

We took two days of our Christmas unit to read, watch and listen to various Nutcracker stories.  We read the classic:  The Story of the Nutcracker Ballet.  Turkey and Bunny were really amused by this story, and I like it because it’s one of the few secular Christmas stories that has nothing to do with Santa.  We also watched the Nutcracker ballet–two different versions.  First we watched the classic Baryshnikov, which my father actually bought for me when I was a little girl, after we had seen a performance of the ballet in downtown Chicago.  Turkey and Bunny loved that, and it would have been enough, except that I stumbled across the San Francisco Ballet performance of the Nutcracker on PBS, and I was so impressed by the costumes, sets, and general interpretation that we watched that one, too, and the children liked it just as much, if not more.  We, of course, had to watch the Nutcracker segment on Walt Disney’s Fantasia after learning about the ballet, and they thought that was equally entertaining.  I also have a beautiful recording of the Nutcracker that Ryan bought me one Christmas, so we listened to that music while doing our school activities one day.  I think Turkey and Bunny have successfully ingrained the sounds in their brains–they won’t be forgetting that score any time soon!