'The Nutcracker': year after year, it's always loved

November 27, 1994|By Charlotte Sommers | Charlotte Sommers,Special to The Sun

The forecast calls for several feet of fake snow to fall across the region this December. Scores of Christmas trees will magically grow, armies of giant mice will battle wooden dolls, legions of angels will leap and twirl, and strains of Tchaikovsky will saturate the air.

It's time again for "The Nutcracker," the wildly popular Russian ballet story of a little girl's Christmas Eve fantasy.

Though the ballet's 1892 debut left St. Petersburg audiences cold, Americans have adopted it as a national cultural treasure. No matter whether the Sugar Plum Fairy is danced by an exquisite ballerina in a metropolitan theater or by an anxious adolescent in a school gymnasium, audiences eat it up like Christmas candy.

What is the appeal of "The Nutcracker" that it has become the most beloved ballet in American dance history? When we queried those in the know in the Baltimore-Washington area, opinions were as diverse as the scope and style of the various productions.

Two international companies will present "Nutcrackers" in Baltimore. At the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, the Moscow State Ballet of the Natalia Sats Theatre promises "a grand production in the Russian style." According to producer Akeva Talmi, "We have 80 artists, including a full orchestra playing Tchaikovsky as only the Russians can."

Mr. Talmi said "The Nutcracker" has never become popular in his homeland. Its popularity in America is likely due to the fact that it's seen as musical theater rather than as ballet, said his associate, Mary Giannone, an American modern dance choreographer.

" 'The Nutcracker' is the only way people in America will swallow the bitter pill of ballet," she said with a laugh, "because it's candy-coated."

Ms. Giannone also said that for many, the holiday experience is a time when the family pulls together. "That's when we set traditions," she said, "like going to the theater to experience culture."

An authentically Russian cultural experience is also promised at the Lyric Opera House, where the Donetsk Ballet, a company based in a small mining town in Ukraine, will present the ballet "as Tchaikovsky intended it to be seen," said producer Nicholas Litrenta.

This version will be "a first-class 'Nutcracker' with internationally XTC renowned principal dancers," Mr. Litrenta said, adding that much of the ballet's popularity can be attributed to its beautiful score. "In addition to a full orchestra, we incorporate the Maryland Boys Choir, and the sound in that space is stunning."

In Washington, the Joffrey Ballet's national touring company will take the stage at the Kennedy Center with its critically acclaimed production. Conceived and originally directed by the late Robert Joffrey, this version is set in Victorian America. Reviews of the Joffrey "Nutcracker" rave about their spectacular Mother Ginger, 14-foot-high puppet designed by Kermit Love, the creator of "Sesame Street's" Big Bird.

In a 1987 interview in Dance magazine, Mr. Joffrey, who was born on Christmas Eve, said "The Nutcracker" "enables each of us to revisit the land of innocence -- our childhood." The comments of company co-founder Gerald Arpino in the same article were a bit more harsh. "We need to restore some of the childlike qualities we've lost," he said. "It's time to shake up the young, to question what they're telling us is important, to look to ideals and not to pocketbooks."

The Washington Ballet, whose annual "Nutcrackers" span 33 years, will appear at the Warner Theater. Their current production boasts more than 200 dancers and three rotating casts, with celebrated ballerina Amanda McKerrow dancing the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy in some performances.

Artistic director Mary Day remembers when theirs was the only "Nutcracker" in town. "Now everybody's doing one," she said, with a note of exasperation, "and audiences don't discriminate. They just go to the nearest one."

While she is happy people come out to see "The Nutcracker," she bemoans the fact that she has been unable to tap that audience for other ballets, a common phenomenon in the precarious world of dance marketing.

Indeed, for many smaller companies "The Nutcracker" subsidizes their other productions, which do not draw as well. Many meet their annual budgets thanks to the ballet's box office appeal.

One such company -- the Ballet Theater of Annapolis, with a cast of 22 in the regular company, plus 95 students from local dance schools -- will perform at Towson State University's Stephens Hall and at the Maryland Hall for Creative Arts.

Their "Nutcracker" is "a light-hearted version," said Edward Stewart, artistic director. "For example, the battle scene, which is usually dark and scary, is played for laughs."

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