Beneath the sugar frosting of this `Nutcracker' is a respect for children

It's December, and most ballet stages are adrift in snow, icing, sugar, and glitter. Hordes of children, ballerina fairies, and cavaliers prance through the annual fund-raising pageant known as ``The Nutcracker'' to Tchaikovsky's sparkling score. The New York City Ballet's ``Nutcracker'' is just as frosted, spangled, and twinkly as any other. But unlike many, it has a core of integrity: a respect for children. Balanchine may have been choreographing them as leaping candy canes, rich little boys and girls at war, and toy soldiers attacking mice. But he never exploited them for their cuteness, as is too often so with ``The Nutcracker.'' The children in this production, all students from the School of American Ballet, appear as dancers. Down to th e smallest angel, they have work to do. In the party scene Herr Drosselmeier, the mysterious magician, presents Marie with the nutcracker that will turn into the Little Prince. Marie is the girl who will turn into the Little Princess. The other children dart across the stage like protons and electrons. They dodge grown-ups, snatch presents, and pull hair. It's ordered mayhem: When the little girls sit down with their dolls, the boys come running through in formation and leap over them, Cossack-style.

The appeal of their dancing doesn't come from child-prodigy prowess, though their talent is evident. It's their look of intelligence that seems revolutionary. It shouldn't. But dancers of any age, if not given enough to do, can lose concentration and look stupid. Too many choreographers underestimate children. These look as if they are being challenged and are rising to it. Forming lines, weaving patterns, and leaping, they look sharp.

With all their responsibilities, they don't have time to be self-conscious. The nutcracker-become-prince, danced by Michael Christopher Badger, placed the crown of the slain Mouse King on the head of the girl-become-princess and they began to march solemnly away. When the crown fell off, Michael Badger just as solemnly picked it up and carried it. There was no laughter, just a minor ripple of applause for his dignity.

This is not always the case. Some ``Nutcrackers'' set up the children as miniature buffoons. Take the Polichinelles, the children who come running out from under the enormous hoop skirt of one character, dance around, then dive back under. In the Boston Ballet production, these children are made to form pairs, bend stiffly at the waist and make big kissing noises, then turn around and bump bottoms. This gets the audience started laughing, which continues as they do an exaggerated polka designed to make them look awkward.

An excess of decoration and candy-shop glitz can make ``The Nutcracker'' look like a middle-class family room about 3 o'clock Christmas afternoon. But the focus on children in the audience and on stage holds the New York City Ballet's production together. Merrill Ashley, as the Sugarplum Fairy, was first seen opening night sweeping into perfectly balanced arabesques. But instead of the Fairy's usual look of triumph, Miss Ashley kept her head down. She was directing the lines of angels across the stage.

Critics who applauded Balanchine's plotless ballets and brilliant ballerinas thought he was selling out in 1954 when he came up with a ``Nutcracker,'' by its nature a spectacle that tells a story in an old-fashioned way. In ``Balanchine's Tchaikovsky,'' Balanchine said to author Solomon Volkov, ``It is hard for children in the audience to appreciate classical dance. They are used to talking, they need a story. But everything is clear in `The Nutcracker,' and they like that.''

Balanchine made things clear, but he didn't make them ordinary. The sense of form that gives substance to his plotless ballets gives ``The Nutcracker,'' under all the goo, a clarity that is both thrilling and sensible. The snowflakes, dancing in a cool squadron to a chorus of boys' voices, swished and then seemed to crystallize for an unforgettable moment before they whisked off. And Heather Watts, as Dewdrop, was all angles, quick balances, and fleet turns as she danced among the Flowers. She'd go of fstage in a leap, legs in splits. The Flowers, dressed in multi-petaled, long tutus, bobbed softly forward in a quiet pattern as she left. She would slice in again from another corner of the stage, accenting them just as a real dewdrop would.

Balanchine's fast pacing, inventiveness, and humor, not the sugar coating, are what make this ``Nutcracker'' a hit. He probably set out to make a crowd-pleaser like all the other ``Nutcrackers.'' But he had a higher opinion of the crowd. He must have consulted the child within himself. He told Volkov, ``Tchaikovsky remained a child all his life; he felt things like a child. He liked the German idea that man in his highest development approaches the child. Tchaikovsky loved children as themselves, not as

future adults. . . . `The Nutcracker' at our theater is for children young and old. That is, for children and for adults who are children at heart. Because, if an adult is a good person, in his heart he is still a child. In every person the best, the most important part is that which remains from his childhood.''

``The Nutcracker'' appears at the State Theater of New York, Lincoln Center, through Jan. 5. -- 30 --

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