New York City Ballet's 'Nutcracker' production blends fantasy and discipline

An unusual aspect of the New York City Ballet's production of the "Nutcracker" is that it uses children -- real children, not grown-up dancers acting with childlike behavior. Since fantasy is at the core of the "Nutcracker" story, it's the realistic touch of seeing children perform children's roles that makes the fantasy as believable as it is thrilling.

The "Nutcracker" is about a dream little Marie has after the guests have left a Christmas party at her home. Like all proper dreams, hers is scary as well as beautiful. She dreams of huge mice scurrying about her living room and battling soldiers and her beloved Nutcracker toy. She saves his life and he is magically transformed into a handsome prince.Together they wander through a snow-covered forest and arrive at the Kingdom of Sweets, where a colorful array of candies and flowers dance for them.

It's a simple story, yet its themes of valor, love, and the achievement of perfection, as embodied by the dancing of the Sugar Plum Fairy, appeal to the child in every New Yorker, young and old. Choreographed by George Balanchine in 1954, by now the "Nutcracker" has become a rite of passage. Children in the audience see on the stage images of themselves, counterparts who behave with the precision and discipline necessary for the ballet. The children in the production, meanwhile, glimpse in the adult dancers the expertise they hope to achieve for themselves one day.

Like the professional dancers, the children rehearse rigorously and constantly. They must be prepared for the inevitable mishaps that happen during live performance. At one performance this season, for example, the crown that the Nutcracker is supposed to remove from the Mouse King's head wouldn't budge. Like a true professional, the little boy playing the Nutcracker pretended nothing had gone wrong and the show went on without a wrinkle.

Episodes like this make the "Nutcracker" exciting for the kids, while a deeper satisfaction lies in graduating into more demanding dance roles. One year a child may be one of the guests at Marie's party, while the next year she is one of the Polichinelles who pop out of Mother Ginger's enormous skirt. If she or he worked hard, acceptance into the corps de ballet of the New York City Ballet may be the reward. The children have a living example of that success story right in front of them, for the dancer who rehearses them now, David Richardson, was once himself the Nutcracker-Prince.

Having celebrated its 1,000th performance early in the month, the "Nutcracker" is at the New York State Theater, Lincoln Center, through Dec. 31.

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