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NYC ballet’s ‘Nutcracker’ tradition

Production hits 2,000th performance Dec. 19

NEW YORK For roughly 50 years, New York City Ballet has been having a very merry Christmas, and it’s all thanks to Tchaikovsky and George Balanchine. The gift that keeps on giving, “The Nutcracker” logs its 2,000th performance Dec. 19.

Though the production remains virtually unchanged since it was first choreographed by Balanchine in 1954 (the set was tweaked slightly to accommodate the move to Lincoln Center), it is City Ballet’s biggest draw by a wide margin, mobbed by starry-eyed young bunheads and their accompanying families each year from Thanksgiving through New Year’s. The production is acknowledged not only as having popularized “The Nutcracker,” it also provides a profitability model for a form that’s always a tricky sell for wide audiences.

In its five-week run, “The Nutcracker” generates about 39% of NYCB’s annual ticket revenue, grossing roughly $9.7 million and making up 16% of its overall budget.. But as traditional as the program now seems, it began as a risk, giving little indication it would become City Ballet’s bread and butter.

“After the ballet premiered in St. Petersburg, it wasn’t very popular,” says NYCB general manager Kenneth Tabachnick. In staging his own production in 1954, Balanchine dramatically overshot his budget — the giant Christmas tree, in particular, was a huge expense. His wasn’t even the first version to bow in the U.S. — a production by the San Francisco Balletpreceded it. Having danced the piece as a student in Russia, Balanchine’s nostalgia for the ballet made the normally daring choreographer’s work on it surprisingly traditional.

When a live performance was broadcast on CBS’ “Playhouse” on Christmas Day 1958, NYCB began breaking box office records at City Center. The program, which featured Balanchine himself dancing the role of Herr Drosselmeier, thrust the ballet into the public eye, and today few traditional American ballet companies have a “Nutcracker”-free season.

American Ballet Theater, for instance, plays its Mikhail Baryshnikov-choreographed version of the ballet every year and gave it a similar televised showcase, also on CBS, in 1977.

“I think that, given the success of our production, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” says Tabachnick. “It’s different now that the Disney shows and the Rockettes are traveling, but for a long time it was the only Christmastime thing you could count on in this country. It’s also one of the few things you can safely and reliably bring your children to — it’s not threatening.”

But it’s not simply a matter of hauling City Ballet’s cash cow out of mothballs every November and slinging it back on the State Theater stage. There’s an extraordinarily elaborate (but low-tech) set, a plethora of giant costumes and a live snowstorm, all of which can make production costs add up.

“Obviously, we have our expenses,” Tabachnick admits. “But we don’t have the same expenses we would if we were running a different program every night.”

A further advantage is that the orchestra doesn’t have to rehearse the music nearly as often.

For performance number 2,000, 17 different dancers will play the roles of the Sugarplum Fairy, the Cavalier and Dewdrop. But the show will continue to be the same familiar scene New Yorkers have been attending for decades.

Buoyed by its dependable success, NYCB will run 10 mixed rep shows, among others, during the winter season. It’s a long-running testament to a gamble by Balanchine that paid off, and continues to pay off, year after year.

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