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Nutcracker in New York

Posted on January 13, 2022

Act2 Nutcracker Woodward 191204 203

Above: Indiana Woodward in New York City Ballet’s production of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker. Photograph by Erin Baiano.

Relaying news from New York in the January issue of Dancing Times, Leigh Witchel wrote that “New York City Ballet has done the same version of The Nutcracker since 1954,” but because “there were no major debuts during opening week,” there was “nothing to report” about it. As it happened, that old production made headlines this year, with good reason.

George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker is as much a part of Christmas in New York as Rockefeller Center’s towering Christmas tree, which was first erected in 1933 as “a holiday beacon for New Yorkers and visitors alike.” Largely unchanged but for new décor and lighting designed by Rouben Ter-Arutunian in 1964, Balanchine’s production involves more than 100 children, not as window dressing but as dancers who portray children, mice, toy soldiers, angels, candy canes and polichinelles, the inhabitants of Mother Ginger’s capacious skirt.

In 2020, to the dismay of thousands, the coronavirus effectively cancelled the annual return of this favourite, which had never missed a Christmas appearance in its long history. Determined to prevent another cancellation this year, the company had to overcome a raft of problems. First of all, young children were not being vaccinated against COVID-19 when rehearsals began in the autumn, so the 12-year-olds who had always been deemed too old for the children’s roles became the youngest performers allowed to dance them.

Photographs: 1-2 – The Party Scene in New York City Ballet’s The Nutcracker. 3 – Waltz of the Flowers. Photographs by Erin Baiano.

The height requirement changed too. In order to suit both the characters and the costumes, children couldn’t ordinarily be cast if they were taller than about five foot one inch in height. Now, filling the many roles took precedence over filling the existing costumes, so teenagers were selected, some as tall as five foot seven inches. Though the children traditionally come from the School of American Ballet, auditions this year, for the first time, extended to six other professional training schools in Manhattan, including those affiliated with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Ballet Hispánico and Dance Theatre of Harlem. 

To put a safe limit on the numbers of participants, the normal troupe of 126 children shrank to 74, divided into two casts with most people playing two roles. To dress everyone, nearly 130 new costumes had to be built from scratch – the budget eventually reached about $375,000. The new outfits were naturally larger than those they replaced because they had to fit older children; the replacements were also constructed to be easily adjusted for future casts of various sizes.  

This Nutcracker wasn’t the only holiday show in town, or even the only Nutcracker. For young children, New York Theatre Ballet presented a small cast in a one-hour staging to recorded music. The Brooklyn Nutcracker featured a popping and locking Drosselmeyer and a hip hop battle, and Company XIV’s sophisticated version embraced elements of burlesque, circus and drag. 

Photographs: 1 – Indiana Woodward and Anthony Huxley in Act II of New York City Ballet’s The Nutcracker. 2 – Megan Fairchild and Company in Waltz of the Flowers. 3 – Roman Mejia in the Candy Cane dance. Photographs by Erin Baiano.

Yet the colour, fun, mystery and classical dancing in Balanchine’s interpretation still weave irresistible magic, and the nearly-full house welcomed the performance I attended with cheers. In it, I discovered Emma Von Enck, a corps de ballet member who led the divertissement for Marzipan Shepherdesses with charm and musicality that will surely win her more significant roles.

Having struck up a conversation during the interval, a young man told me as we left our seats that he knew the music well but had never seen any dancing set to it. “I’ll come back,” he said. “Now I want to see something else.” Isn’t that what every company hopes to hear? 

PS. It was great while it lasted. After I left New York in mid-December, the virus forced New York City Ballet to cancel 17 performances of The Nutcracker. On January 7 the company announced a nine-day delay to the opening of its winter season and a slight change in its repertoire. Tough times still lie ahead.

 

Barbara Newman’s books about ballet include Grace under Pressure; The Illustrated Book of Ballet Stories for children; a volume of interviews, Striking a Balance, and its follow-up, Never Far from Dancing. She has written for Dancing Times since 1984 and served as the dance critic for Country Life from 1990 to 2016. She archives all her work at http://barbaranewmandance.net

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