Americans didn't know The Nutcracker in 1954. Or rather, what people knew was the Nutcracker Suite, a greatest-hits set of divertissements from the full-length Tchaikovsky ballet. Walt Disney put his marketing muscle behind it with Fantasia in 1940, and Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo bourréed across America with various versions of the Suite in the 1940s. The first full-length professional Nutcracker in this country wasn't presented until 1944, when Willam Christensen created one for San Francisco Ballet.
But it took George Balanchine to turn the full-length Nutcracker into a national phenomenon. New York City Ballet presented the premiere of his Nutcracker at City Center, on February 2, 1954, and jump-started the annual avalanche of Nutcrackers nationwide. Balanchine based his Nutcracker on his memories of the original Ivanov version, in which he danced as a child at St. Petersburg's Mariinsky Theater. Balanchine's Nutcracker at New York City Ballet is, essentially, the model for all that followed in this country, and from the vantage point of fifty-plus years, it looks inevitable. It wasn't — in fact, it was a gamble.
"If we hadn't done Nutcracker, we wouldn't have survived," says Maria Tallchief, the dazzling principal dancer who was New York City Ballet's first Sugarplum Fairy. "Firebird, in 1949, was our first popular success, and Morton Baum, who ran City Center, felt that we needed another ballet that would draw large audiences. Well, once The Nutcracker was a big success that first season, Baum said, 'We've go to put this on every performance.' Back then George never had understudies for anybody; he wanted to concentrate on the person he was making the ballet on. So I danced eight performances a week of The Nutcracker, as I had done with Firebird, too. And believe me, that's a lot of work!"
Edward Bigelow, formerly the assistant manager of New York City Ballet, recalls that, initially, the Yuletide timing of The Nutcracker was pragmatic. "In those days we generally shared the City Center with New York City Opera," says Mr. Bigelow. "They had first call on when they wanted to perform, and we inherited the slow period around Christmastime, when you could typically hear echoes in the theater. City Center was very pointed about finding things that could be popular, but everything had to fit the aesthetic of Balanchine and [Company co-founder Lincoln] Kirstein.
"We expected The Nutcracker to be a draw," Mr. Bigelow continues, "but it was not understood that it would be something you do 40 or 50 performances of every season. We added numbers of performances to meet audience demand, and within about three years we knew that, financially, The Nutcracker was going to take care of us. It saved us. It really did. And of course, it's a wonderful ballet."
The Nutcracker was the largest physical production the fledgling company had undertaken, replete with a large cast, lots of children, an astonishing Christmas tree, and an onstage blizzard.
Barbara Horgan, now the managing trustee of the George Balanchine Trust, arrived at New York City Ballet in May of 1953 as a member of the administrative staff, but since the Company was chronically short-handed, she was, as she puts it, "instantly elevated to assistant manager," and once Nutcracker started rehearsal, she went from working in the office to being den mother.
"The Nutcracker typically came together with a lot of cooperation and enthusiasm from the staff," Ms. Horgan says. "There were huge jobs coordinating the nitty-gritty of The Nutcracker, working with Karinska's costume shop and with Horace Armistead, who had done the scenery. Then came the onslaught of over 50 children. I wound up taking care of them. They rehearsed at night, because they attended school all day. I put together schedules, obtained clearances from the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children, took the kids from the old School of American Ballet (at 59th Street and Madison Avenue) over to City Center, and then made sure they got in costume backstage, which was very small. Once the production was running, the concerns were getting the soldiers onstage at the right time, clearing the soldiers out so the angels could get on, all that sort of thing. You learned the counts for everything while lining them up in the wings."
Among the children that first season was Eliot Feld, one of two young dancers chosen to share the role of the Nutcracker Prince. He has gone on to have a distinguished career as a choreographer, but at that time, as he remembers, "I had studied ballet all of three months, and really, I didn't know anything about it. I was eleven, and had been playing stickball in Brooklyn three months before. Paul Nickel was the Prince in the first cast, and we were the only two boys in the Children's Division at the School at the time. So maybe getting the role had more to do with gender than with talent."
Mr. Feld learned the Prince's mime from Balanchine, as Balanchine had learned it at the Mariinsky. "What happened," Mr. Feld remembers, "is that we were at City Center and it was maybe a few days before the premiere. The stage was being used, all the studios were being used, so Balanchine took us up to the fifth-floor wardrobe room. There was a piano, and he taught us the mine. Mr. Balanchine wrote down the words of the Prince's pantomime on a piece of paper. I regret that I lost that piece of paper two days later. It would be a really wonderful paper to have now."
Though Ms. Tallchief reports that Balanchine was rigorously organized about the process of choreographing The Nutcracker, creating all that theater magic had its share of mishaps and makeshift solutions. In the first performances, Mr. Bigelow danced the roles of the Mouse King and Mother Ginger, the towering maternal figure that is part dancer, part walking prop. How did he make Mother Ginger so tall? "We improvised the stilts out of balsa wood blocks, so I could have eight little girls from the School of American Ballet under the skirt. I got around — carefully — on 16- or 18-inch wedges made of balsa. Naturally, it wasn't until later that we learned that carpenters and the guys who fix ceilings wear hinged metal stilts that are much more secure."
Ms. Horgan remembers one of the more heart-stopping glitches of the first performance. "That first Christmas tree was like an accordion, set up behind the regular Christmas tree. It was wired to light up as it rose. On opening night, you heard pop, sizzle. There was smoke and a smell as it rose, and we really thought it was going to catch fire. Some gasps came from the audience — actually, all of us were gasping. Somehow the tree straightened itself out. It was a very hairy moment. But that's how things were then," she goes on. "There was so little time that you dealt with problems as they happened. And the final result was magical."
Balanchine created his Nutcracker at a time when people liked Ike and loved Lucy; when newlyweds Marilyn Monroe, the screen siren, and Joe DiMaggio, the star jock, were the most glamorous couple in the universe. What explains the ballet's enduring appeal?
"Simply put, The Nutcracker tells a magical tale," says Ms. Tallchief. "The music is so beautiful, and the choreography of Balanchine is unbelievable. Everything in The Nutcracker was beautifully done."
Mr. Feld remembers, "I was a kid back then, and I was just thrilled to do The Nutcracker. And it had a lasting effect on my sense of what dancing can be. I was being educated, being imbued with the most recent manifestation of a classical tradition. Of course, I did not know it at the time, but I was immutably stamped by the experience."
"I can remember very well," Ms. Tallchief says, "standing downstage on opening night toward the end of the first act, before I had to go on. When that tree started to grow, I started to cry. It was pure magic. And I said to myself, 'Maria, get upstairs to your dressing room. You can't go on as Sugarplum Fairy with tears in your eyes.'"
Robert Sandla, editor in chief of Symphony magazine, writes frequently about the arts.