100 ' Suite' years Without the 'Nutcracker' it wouldn't be Christmas

December 09, 1992|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,Staff Writer

A hundred years of dancing sugar plums and fighting rats, of sweet Claras and bratty Fritzes, of trees growing magically on stage and a wooden toy turning into the prince of every girl's imagination.

Happy 100th birthday, "Nutcracker"!

It has outlasted the scathing reviews of its December 1892 premier and the dismissal of those who consider it more recital fare than serious ballet to become as inescapable a part of the holidays as Salvation Army bell-ringers and shopping mall Santa Clauses.

And what a money-maker. "Nutcracker" performances in the United States took in almost $46 million last year, according to a survey by Dance Magazine, and with more than 200 productions taking the stage coast-to-coast this year, box-office receipts should be just as fat. Among the hundreds of dancers, amateur and professional, young and old, performing in a Nutcracker this year is First-Daughter-to-be Chelsea Clinton, who will be in a Little Rock, Ark., production. And Macauley Culkin of "Home Alone" fame, who played Fritz in the New York City Ballet's

"Nutcracker" before he became a movie star, recently completed a film version with that company for release next year.

"It's just not Christmas without the 'Nutcracker'," is how Daniel .. Kane, a co-founder of the now defunct Maryland Ballet, explains the ballet's enduring popularity. "It gets me into the holiday spirit. The rest of the world may be out in the malls, but we have the 'Nutcracker.' "

The Maryland Ballet is in a sort of an alternate universe when it comes to the "Nutcracker": While many ballet schools and companies are kept financially afloat by their annual "Nutcracker," the Maryland Ballet went out of business early last year, but its "Nutcracker" lives on with guest artists and local children.

It's a testament to the tenacity of the "Nutcracker" that even the death of a company can't kill it. How did a ballet based on a fairly preposterous story -- young Clara gets a nutcracker for Christmas, brother Fritz breaks it, she dreams it turns into a prince and she travels with him to a land where sweets and flowers come to life -- become such a classic? How did a ballet in which the real dancing doesn't even come until the second act ever make it to 100?

The answers range from the artistic to the commercial. Those who love the "Nutcracker" point to the beloved score -- the last Tchaikovsky wrote for ballet -- the appealing story line about a young girl's awakening and, in good versions, choreography that rivals other classics. Detractors say it's done too often -- and too poorly -- by amateur groups content to fill a theater with parents of children who make up the bulk of the cast.

Several dancers who have performed thousands of "Nutcrackers" in their collective lifetimes say that despite year-in, year-out repetition of dancing the ballet, they remain fond of it and its place in their personal performing histories.

"There's something about the music that just spurs you on," said ballerina Cynthia Gregory, a popular dancer during her long career with the American Ballet Theatre and as a touring artist. "I never get tired of it."

She and other dancers literally grew up in the ballet, starting with small roles before graduating to the solos. Principal dancer Kyra Nichols of the New York City Ballet, for example, was cast as a child in the first act party scene in a San Francisco production at the time her mother was dancing the Sugar Plum Fairy, who leads Clara through the Land of the Sweets.

"When she got flowers at the end, I was the one who got to give them to her," Ms. Nichols recalled. "But I always had my eye on her role." (It took her only several years to get it, and currently she is alternating between Sugar Plum Fairy and Dewdrop -- who leads the Waltz of the Flowers -- in the NYCB production.)

Ms. Nichols also enjoys the "Nutcracker" for the "fun" kind of audience it draws. "It's full of kids," she said. "It just is so perfect for this time of the year."

Fellow NYCB dancer Peter Boal, 27, is dancing Sugar Plum's Cavalier this year, but keeps an affection for the children's roles that he performed as a student, especially the one coveted by many of the boys in the school because it paid $15 a show: the kid under Clara's bed responsible for sliding it around.

Since I only dance in the second act now, I came down early the other day to watch, and it was amazing. I found it hadn't lost any of the magic for me," Mr. Boal said. "It caters to children, but adults are thrilled by it too."

The NYCB version, choreographed by the legendary George Balanchine, is considered the premier American "Nutcracker." But any ballet school seemingly feels free to tackle a version of its own.

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