the new yorker
Mary Ellen Mark Behind the Scenes
December 23 & 30, 2002
Joan Acocella
Mary Ellen Mark

The guests for the Christmas party (above) and the tin soldiers, with their sentry

A bunny (right), prepare to go onstage in Balanchine's "Nutcracker"

Certain productions of “The Nutcracker” don’t use child dancers-adults play the children-but in George Balanchine’s version for New York City Ballet, created in 1954, there is a battalion of fifty-four youngsters, all from the School of American Ballet. In using them, Balanchine was being true to the “Nutcracker” of his schooldays- the original, 1892 St. Petersburg production- in which he himself was a child dancer. He played the lead Candy Cane and also the Prince. That’s why the Candy Cane’s dance and the Prince’s beautiful mime solo are the only parts of his “Nutcracker,” that reproduce Lev Ivanov’s original choreography; because Balanchine danced those roles, he remembered the steps.

But because the children’s presence is more than an act of fidelity. Some people believe that “The Nutcracker” is a tale about growing up, and a celebration of that process. By dreaming of the Sugar Plum Fairy and her cavalier, Clara learns about adult love and begins to feel it. But in Balanchine’s Wordsworthian view Clara would have been lucky to stay the way she was-imagining, not becoming. (After all, she will not grow up to be the Sugar Plum Fairy. She’s going to be like her mother.) Children, he felt, knew better than adults; they lived the true life, the life of the mind. “Nonreality is the real thing,” he said. And so there had to be children in his ballet. They were the source of its wisdom.