Originally created 12/15/03

NYC Ballet celebrates its Christmas classic with a reunion



NEW YORK -- Jennie Somogyi found herself with a serious case of the nerves, waiting for her entrance as the Sugarplum Fairy in "The Nutcracker."

The reason: The audience was filled with former child ballet performers - about 200 of them - who had all appeared in New York City Ballet's celebrated production at one time in their lives.

"I knew there was no fooling them," Somogyi chuckled after the performance.

The former mice, bunnies, candy canes, toy soldiers, angels and Polichinelles (those little kids under Mother Ginger's big skirt) - had been invited as part of a homecoming celebration for the School of American Ballet, founded by George Balanchine, to mark the 50th anniversary of the Christmas classic.

The celebration was part of a larger one: the centennial of Balanchine's birth, being marked all year by the company.

For Somogyi, there was a special symmetry to the performance Saturday night. Seventeen years ago, as a 9-year-old ballet pupil, she had fulfilled the ultimate fantasy, appearing as Marie, the lead girl's role. Now, a principal dancer with the company, she was the lead ballerina.

"It was a full-circle feeling out there," she said. "I was thinking, 'I can't believe I'm doing this!"'

Her scheduled Cavalier, Peter Boal, couldn't do it. He was snowed in, stuck in Washington, D.C., and had to be replaced by Charles Askegard. And the party's scheduled special guest, Maria Tallchief, the very first Sugarplum Fairy (and one of Balanchine's former wives), was also thwarted by the snow; she spent hours stuck on a runway in Chicago before being turned back.

Still, the event was festive enough, with a post-show gathering on the promenade at the New York State Theater. The original child prince was there - noted choreographer Eliot Feld, who confessed that there had been only two boys from whom to pick at the school in 1954, and both were chosen to alternate as the prince. So, he said, it was more a matter of gender than talent.

Each year, 50 or so kids are chosen to appear in the ballet - earning $10 a performance. When they're offstage, they sit in their bathrobes and makeup, playing jacks to pass the time.

Peter Martins, the company's artistic director, asked the audience before Saturday's performance. "How many of you were angels?" he called out to smatterings of applause. "Bunnies? Soldiers? Marie? Fritz?"

The curtain rose on the familiar Act 1 party scene, where Marie meets her Nutcracker. The familiar traditions were all in good shape: the giant, growing Christmas tree; the nasty mice; the Nutcracker's transformation into the handsome young prince.

In Act 2, the duo is entertained in the Land of Sweets. Here the dancing picked up: Joaquin de Luz, in his first "Nutcracker" season since being hired away from American Ballet Theatre, was an energetic Candy Cane leader, quite literally jumping through hoops. The "coffee" variation was a bit lacking in the requisite exotic feeling, but the Polichinelles (the kids who have the most fun) were happily on target, and the evening's best moment was Janie Taylor's quicksilver rendition of the Dewdrop, the most technically challenging role.

Although the pas de deux by the Sugarplum and her Cavalier is less exciting, it was done with finesse by Askegard and by Somogyi, who noted later that her childhood turn as Marie "was a lot less stressful."

But the best summary of the "Nutcracker" experience came from Feld, who noted sorrowfully: "When you're a prince at 11, it's all downhill from there."