|Photo by Heidi Beeler.
It‚Äôs not every day you get to perform from the inside of a petri dish. On Saturday, December 3, we packed up the San Francisco Lesbian/Gay Freedom Band and headed over to the California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park for its ‚ÄėTis the Season for Science Exhibit. Our mission: to transplant a mini Dance-Along Nutcracker into a museum setting to determine if it would thrive or collect dust.
The glass shell of the Piazza ‚Äď the central atrium stuck smack between the planetarium and the 4-story rainforest where we set up shop ‚Äď looked a lot like a giant igloo if you were in the holiday frame of mind. Okay, yes, it‚Äôs a California atrium, so of course there are the requisite ferns spreading their wings in the sunbeams from all around the room. And yes, you could spot the living roof glowing green on top of adjoining buildings through the clear glass ceiling, and the California sunshine was turned up full blast that Saturday afternoon in Golden Gate Park.
But the 30-foot-tall snowman standing in the middle of the room took your mind North Pole-ward. And even with a 6-foot long carrot nose, most of its giant dome body reflected blue and white in the glass, making the whole room feel frosty. Step inside the snowman just below the giant carrot nose, and you could watch films about snow fall here on earth and on other planets. Every 30 minutes, a mechanical gun blew ‚Äúindoor snow‚ÄĚ over the room ‚Äď bubbles so tiny they‚Äôd make Don Ho jealous. CAS called them microscopic, but that was a bit of scientific hyperbole, because I could see them with even my aging naked eye, if I caught them on my finger and held them about 4 inches away. Teeny silicon bubbles in itsy clumps so small they looked like Barbie‚Äôs country caviar.
That indoor snow actually did half our work for us. Every time it started to fly, children skipped and danced as it drifted floorward, whether we were playing music or not. A true controlled environment for a successful Dance-Along transplant would have started with a roomful of sullen, bored children, but we made the best of the dancing lot we‚Äôd been handed and set out to play.
Dressed in our Sousa-fabulous marching band uniforms, we piled out onto the short stage and played some light holiday fare. Our first two pieces interspersed famous orchestral and opera music with Christmas carols for comic effect. So ‚ÄúA Little Night Music,‚ÄĚ ‚ÄúBarber of Seville,‚ÄĚ and the ‚Äú1812 Overture‚ÄĚ had shuffled in phrases from ‚ÄúGod Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,‚ÄĚ ‚ÄúUp on the Housetop‚ÄĚ and ‚ÄúSugar Plum Fairy.‚ÄĚ We musicians, raised on Bugs Bunny singing opera, thought this music was hilarious. The 3-to-8-year-old set before us was not impressed.
So our assistant conductor, Eric Fletcher, signaled to pull out the big guns. Tchaikovsky hit our music stands and we wound up the Nutcracker music box. Then out into the house bounced Joselle Monarchi in a 6-foot-round inflatable ballerina fat suit. The kids eyed the ballerina a la Augustus Gloop warily at first as she bounced around to ‚ÄúRussian Trepak.‚ÄĚ With some parental coaxing, a few kids got out into the aisles and spun and hopped in rings with their folks and the giant ballerina. By the time we‚Äôd finished ‚ÄúChinese Dance‚ÄĚ and ‚ÄúDance of the Reed Pipes,‚ÄĚ clusters of kids were skipping around the room and one tiny 2-year-old was calling Joselle ‚ÄúMom.‚ÄĚ Round one gave indications of a successful transplant.
Playing for children was a genuine experiment for the Band over the Dance-Along Nutcracker‚Äôs 26 years. The first production, a high-end cocktail party for adults in formal dress at the Gift Center Pavilion, looked radically different from our show today. Wayne Fleisher, the Band producer and a stunt tap dancer who originated the Dance-Along, told me that in 1985, it was unthinkable that the Gay Community would host an event for children.
By the mid ‚Äė90s, when the Dance-Along moved to Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, families began to show up with their children. The number one question phoned in ran along the lines of ‚ÄúCan I bring my child to your Gay event?‚ÄĚ But, clearly, parents with kids going through their fairy princess phase began to catch on that their wee ones would love to be in a Nutcracker. At one memorable performance in ‚Äė96, Jose Sarria, who appeared at many Dance-Along productions with a 5-foot wing span as the Sugar Plum Fairy, read the open-hearted mood of the room, scooped up a 3-year-old and danced with her in a feature number. It sounds odd today, but back then seeing the openly gay drag artist dancing with a tiny child as her parents and the entire room beamed brought tears to our eyes. Today, the Dance-Along still has an evening gala for grown-ups with cocktails. But the daytime shows are packed with LGBTQ and straight families alike rushing the dance floor, and part of the charm is watching the reckless abandon of little munchkins spinning and bopping among the adults.
Back at California Academy of Sciences, we returned to the Piazza for set two. Many of the set one crowd returned, and this time, as soon as the operatic holiday chestnuts started, the kids were out of their chairs and up in the aisles. So we believe we have publishable proof. Even in a science museum setting, children and music mix.
Write Heidi at BrassTacks.SF@gmail.com.