Fifty years ago, George Balanchine had $40,000 with which to create a new Nutcracker for the New York City Ballet. It would be the company’s first evening-length work, and with staggering brazenness, even by today’s standards, he spent $25,000 on the 40-foot tree.
At the time, NYCB was City Center’s resident company, and the theater’s general manager, Morton Baum, went through the roof, says Terry Teachout, author of the new All in the Dances: A Brief Life of George Balanchine. “Baum had a fit, but it was too late—the money was spent—and the production ended up costing City Center $80,000. Everybody but Balanchine thought the company would go bankrupt.”
They were way off the mark. Not only was the ballet a sensation (landing Mr. B on the cover of Time), it quickly became the company’s cash cow—so much so, says Teachout, that “no Nutcracker, no City Ballet.” The company dedicates more than a month of its winter, all of its 90 dancers, two casts of 50 children from the School of American Ballet, 62 musicians, and 32 stagehands to the production. By the end of this season, the company will have danced more than 2,000 performances. No other work in the repertory comes close.
Over the past half-century, the Sugarplum Fairy, the Mouse King, those menacing rodents, the massive Mother Ginger, the waltzing Flowers and prancing Snowflakes, and the wide-eyed Marie—not to mention the Tchaikovsky score—have drawn in hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom would never go to the ballet otherwise. The work also set the stage for ballet companies across the country to continually create their own versions. Though the production has changed little over the years, Teachout notes one key difference. “All the little boys are real live boys now. Back in the fifties, some of them were actually girls in drag, because there weren’t enough boys in the School of American Ballet.”
That first year, in fact, one of just two boys onstage was Eliot Feld, a 12-year-old Brooklyn kid who avoided telling his streetwise friends about his ballet lessons. Today, of course, Feld is one of the country’s premier choreographers, the artistic director of Ballet Tech. He says he didn’t know back then that he was part of something significant. “The tree was big and I was small. But, you know, I had no context. I went to take ballet class; I was chosen. It’s really only recently that I’ve become aware of its historical—” He pauses. “I mean, if you were there when Christ was there, it was just how it was, you know?”
Feld, who danced the Nutcracker Prince role, particularly remembers a tutoring session from the master himself. “One day, Mr. Balanchine took me up to the fifth-floor dressing room just before the opening and wrote the words down for the mime at the beginning of Act Two, and taught me the gestures. It was a memory aid—the syntax derives from the French—so that I knew what each gesture was supposed to express. The words, I remember still: I therei sleep she me comfort I sleep well hear noise open eyes and see. There mice, there mice! And I thought, God, he doesn’t speak very good English.”