Jump to content
This Site Uses Cookies. If You Want to Disable Cookies, Please See Your Browser Documentation. ×

1958 Balanchine Nutcracker Television Version

Recommended Posts

On December 25, 1958, Balanchine's Nutcracker was broadcast on CBS. In a diferent post I wrote "And is there in existence a film of the 1958 Nutcracker broadcast on CBS with Diana Adams? Is it in the Paley film archive in NYC? That broadcast is one of my earliest memories of television, and my first of ballet. I'd love to find it." And find it I did!

I sat in the Paley Media Center research room for 1-1/2 hours listening and watching to this period piece. My first impression, especially of Act one, is that he stage was too small for the dances (a reflection of the City Center staging?) and the involved setting, with two different rooms, complicated the action more than necessary. A highlight of the performance was the chance to see George Balanchine play Drosselmeyer. The production softened the frightening aspects of Drosselmeyer's entrance. By the way, the introduction by June Lockhart and her constant, intrusive voiceovers during the action were unnecessary and treacly. Balanchine's Nutcracker needs no voiceover to make the action intelligible even to a four year old.

The children in Act one were ragged. The boys were played mostly by girls - not even bothering to disguise them with short hair - two of the girl/boys had buns! Balanchine really suffered from the lack of boys taking ballet. The prince/nutcracker looked so familiar to me. I wondered if he could possibly be Eliot Feld - but no, it was Robert Maiorano, who went on to a career in the company and whose book Mozartiana graces my bookshelf.

Some of the staging decisions were downright annoying. While the polichinelles were dancing, Clara and the prince were standing in the foreground blocking the view of the dancing children. The snowflakes were nearly invisible due to the heavy "snowfall" which practically concealed their choreography.

Allegra Kent as Dewdrop stole the show. At 20, at her peak, she was simply lovely and overflowed with the joy of dancing. Her technique was perfection. A pity in her later career she was so ambivalent about dancing, and had three children while still in the company, That Balanchine kept her on and continued choreographing for her (Bugaku) says a lot about her luminous talent and beauty.

Diana Adans was always for me a mystery, an unknown quality. I had seen few pictures of her and no video at all. Now was a chance to assess her dancing as Sugar Plum. First I was struck by her regality, and by her more than passing resemblance to the then-young Queen. Perhaps Balanchine noted this and highlighted it in the role of SPF. She wore a calf length gown in the first act as is the present practice, but the last pas de deux (actually, pas de quatre) at the end of the ballet was rather odd. She still wore the long dress, not a tutu as SPF does now in Act II, and strangely enough, instead of a cavalier, Balanchine used four danseurs as her partners - Candy Cane, Hot Chocolate, Coffee (played with charismatic panache by Arthur Mitchell), and a Chinese dancer. Diana Adams floated from one to the other. (Where was Jacques D'Amboise?) So different from the pas de deux with one cavalier that we are used to now. Shows Balanchine made substantive changes over the years.

I was very annoyed at the cramped conditions of the sound stage - it inhibited the dancing, especially in Act one, and the gratuitous narration by the dulcet-toned June Lockhart. Shows what a difference the 1964 move to Lincoln Center made to Balanchine's artistic possibilities.

I noticed Balanchine particularly. He hammed at times, but he moved with such theatricality. He disregarded his own dictum, "Don't act!" When he produced the walnuts for the Nutcracker, his hand all but danced - the movement of his hand was artistic. The editing cut down the magical/mystical moment when Drosselmyer takes the place of the owl on top of the grandfather clock, it passed by momentarily.

Although we complain about the corruption of Balanchine's standards now, I feel so grateful that on the stage of the Theater Formerly Known as State we have totally professional, spacious performances, with the children rehearsed to perfection. No ragged performances now.

Also, now Act II opens with the floating by of the angels. Act II in the Playhouse 90 version opened with gingerbread houses and candies - reminded me of Hansel and Gretel. Balanchine certainly improved the 1954 version of the Nutcracker over the years.

I'm seeing it with Mearns, Peck, Catazaro in the last performance of the season and am almost sated by all this Nutcracker. But the chance to see it on the capacious stage of the Theater Formerly Known as State, up close, to see the amazing Mearns and Peck and to assess a new talent, Catazaro, are too tempting to miss.

So if you want to compare now and then, go to the Paley Media Center, 25 West 52nd Street off Sixth Avenue. They have a wonderfully comfortable set-up on the 4th floor for seeing classic television setups, and their librarians (archivists?) are very helpful. You can skip the commercials, and much of June Lockhart. It's less then 1-1/2 hours. Seeing this dated and cramped production has made me very grateful for what we have now at NYCB.

Link to comment

Just want to add - you can't really compare the dancing of the 50's to that of later years. Suzanne Farrell (who was discovered by Diana Adams, by the way) changed Balanchine's aesthetic, he was choosing dancers who were more spare, more athletic. Just look at the photo of Patricia McBride supported by Balanchine on the cover of More Balanchine Variations, from the 1970's. Her arms are emaciated. In the 70's the thin aesthetic had reached its apotheosis, and dancers like Gelsey Kirkland were abusing serious drugs, which was causing them to be emaciated in an attempt at the "ideal" ballet body. Thank God we no longer demand that sort of unhealthy appearance. Dancers like Merrill Ashley in the 1980's, Sara Mearns now, look healthy. But the lean ideal is still there, although tempered by the greater understanding of health risks of being too thin. But in the 1950's, the body type was more womanly - viz. Diana Adams. There was less athleticism. You can't really compare a 50 year period of dance. We have amazing dancers at NYCB and I think NOW is the golden age, even without Balanchine.

Link to comment

I've never seen that all the way through! Thanks for the address, Eileen, not to mention your impressions of what you saw. Too bad about some dumb camera locations along the way, but that's television for you. I must get in there next time I'm in New York.

(BTW, the Nutcracker "tradition" of girls playing boys is also maintained by MCB here in Florida. Staging that ballet, you use who you've got, evidently.)

Link to comment

Jack, the man at the front desk was very helpful in advising me that you don't need to pay $15 for a "Scholars Pass" - which is for people who need to use the research room for more than 1 -1/2 hours. He told me to buy the $10 adult admission which allows you 1-1/2 hours in the Scholars Room. And since they are not at all busy now - the archivists looked up eagerly when I entered the fourth floor - they will allow you another 20 minutes if you need them. But now I'm thinking.... What about the Library of Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, which is free? Do they have the Balanchine Playhouse 90 version? Check the nypl.org catalog. They also have a room full of screens and earphones, only not as posh as the Paley Media Center.

The reason NYCB has so many boys is they are able to finance a program of full scholarships for boys. Boys pay nothing to attend, and admission is still competitive. If MCB could afford to let boys study for free, they would also have actual boys playing boy parts. Balanchine worked with what he had until the Ford Foundation grant came through in the early 60's, which allowed him to send his dancers out to scout for the best ballet students, one of whom, Roberta Ficker, became Suzanne Farrell. Then the scholarships for boys in later years under Martins improved the school and its performances enormously. Even in the 60's, in an interview, I remember Balanchine saying, "We have Jacques D'Amboise, he is married and has children. We have Edward Vilella, he is also married with children. So we're doing 100%." This was obviously to reassure parents who were afraid for their sons to be ballet dancers. So Balanchine knew exactly what he was up against. Vilella's father insisted he abandon ballet and join the Merchant Marine Academy. Luckily he went back to ballet in time.

I'm very concerned about MCB without Edward Vilella. It seems insane, or at least counterproductive, to fire the founder at only 75 when he has so much knowledge and experience. If Balanchine had been fired at 75 in 1979, we would not have had Mozartiana! I'll check out the MCB forum to see what Miami and Fort Lauderdale audience members have to say.

Link to comment

I enjoyed reading your impressions, Eileen. None of the amateurish filming and staging really bothers me, but I find Clara annoyingly stiff. In regards to acting, I think Balanchine told different people different things, but in any case it seems he was referring to dance roles, not non-dancing character roles like Drosselmeyer. It is amusing to see Balanchine ham it up. I thought Adam Hendrickson last week was pretty restrained compared to Balanchine, and Hendrickson was the one whose characterization needed to be seen far into the theater.

Link to comment

Thank you, kfw. I do hope Hendrickson does a wonderful job as Drosselmeyer, as I recently met him and he has such a piquant quality and puckish, mobile features. Since I'll be sitting in row J center of the orchestra, I hope he will register effectively.

Further on the Nutcracker TV film:

The Library of the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center (NYC) has some interesting Balanchine Nutcracker material, including apparently the entire 1958 television recording. Here is a link to a documentary on Balanchine's Nutcracker, and if you read the entire description, you will find a reference to their having the entire film and a classification number.


Link to comment

Yes, Eric, it was worth sitting through a very tepid production that was true Balanchine, despite all the silly voiceovers, awkward editing, dead time (Clara contemplating the owl grandfather clock), misguided snowstorm that actually camouflaged the snowflake-dancers - it was worth it, and something I've wanted to do for a long time. What a revelation, to see Allegra Kent at her peak! How interesting to see how Diana Adams was nowhere near as charismatic as many NYCB principals today, and more matronly than queenly. It was instructive to see how Balanchine was forced to use the forces at his disposal, to "make do" with the ingredients at hand. What a relief it must have been for him to have the State Theater where his genius could find full expression.

Link to comment

Listening to Valery Gergiev's plush rendering of the Nutcracker on the NY classical radio station, I realize suddenly - the 1958 version omitted entirely the little prince's solo, in which he depicts slaying the mouse king. The highlight of his role has been cut, to make room for commercials. Or did Balanchine later create this episode? If it was cut by the TV mavens - what violence to his art Balanchine was compelled to put up with!

Did he create the mime for the little prince after 1958? Or was it in the original 1954 choreography? Does any Balanchine scholar know?

Link to comment

Did he create the mime for the little prince after 1958? Or was it in the original 1954 choreography? Does any Balanchine scholar know?

I was 11 in 1958 and had been going to the NYCB Nutcracker for years by that age. I certainly remember it existing in the productions I saw with my mother each year. Being as young as I was, it was likely something I paid close attention to as I always had a crush on each year's nephew of Herr Drosselmeyer.

Link to comment

The mime speech in Act II for the Prince has always been there. Balanchine wrote of it in his 1954 edition of his Stories of the Great Ballets. He uses it to discuss mime etiquette and the distinctive walk that the Prince does before he starts his tale. He walked in a circle, as if saying, "Listen to this! Pay attention!" The little circular walk has, alas, disappeared; I always liked that moment. It was apparently gone by the 1993 video with Darci Kistler and Macaulay Culkin, who, in my fairly contrarian opinion, was OK in the Prince role; he just wasn't great, which perhaps was expected of a movie star. The greatest Princes in my memory were Jose Greco's son, Jose Luis, and Jean-Pierre Frohlich.

Link to comment

Thank you Marga for your on the scene report! Imagine TV cutting that scene!

I thought "Playhouse 90" was called that because it ran 90 minutes, including commercials and introductions. So there was some pressure on Balanchine to cut. Besides, he may have thought by then - this came out later when he omitted a number from the "Dance in America" broadcast of Prodigal Son, one for the Drinking Companions only - that the apparent pace of dance on screen was slower than in the theater unless something was done to enliven things. Certainly some of the tempos in the 1958 video are fast, driven, even, and I think he also felt that modern audiences don't "get" pantomime, the more general television audience even more so than the theater audience, and so that may be the thinking behind why this bit was cut.

At MCB in Fort Lauderdale three weeks ago, the circular-walk introduction Mel admired may nearly have come back. I'm not sure whether it was a certain vagueness in execution or in my attention at that moment, but I recall thinking Eran Kornfeld's performance seemed not to have a definite direction at first - going in a circle? - before he got into the literal arm and hand gestures of his story.

Link to comment
  • Recently Browsing   0 members

    • No registered users viewing this page.
  • Create New...