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New York City Ballet in Balanchine's version of Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker." Photo copyright Paul Kolnik and courtesy New York City Ballet.

Copyright 2010 Paul Ben-Itzak

NEW YORK -- On my way last night to what used to be called -- because taxpayers financed it -- the New York State Theater, I stepped on a dead rat. Unfortunately, it was neither the first nor the most offensive rodent I would encounter. The next confronted me when I arrived at the theater -- my first time back in eight years -- and was reminded by the new lettering on its facade that it is now named after David Koch. If I liken Koch to a rat, it's not just because he's one of the main funders of the scary right-wing retrograde Luddite so-called "Tea Party." Nor is it just because his company, Koch Industries, has been responsible for environmental disasters, at least one deadly. No, it's because through his funding of phony science and, most recently, a statewide initiative in California which would have rolled back its efforts to slow down global warming, Koch -- who is also the main funder of American Ballet Theatre's new "Nutcracker" -- does not stand with the ballet's composer Tchaikovsky and its choreographer George Balanchine on the side of those who would foster children's dreams, but on the side of their worse nightmares, those in which an over-heated planet deprives them of their birthright. And why does dance, once again, stick its head in the sand and let itself be used as a shill? As for its "Nutcracker," unfortunately, last night at Lincoln Center, New York City Ballet chief Peter Martins did not need any help in quashing the dreams this dance play is supposed to exalt.

To put it bluntly, I was horrified at what I saw, particularly in the first act, which is more or less given over to children. As written by Balanchine, their choreography is supposed to sing. It is vivid. It is choreography that actually treats children as capable of patterned movement and of finely-etched pantomime. But last night, the operative word was fudge -- not for the candy awaiting the kids in the land of the sweets, but for the way the choreography was smudged and raced over by everyone from the kids playing brethren Marie and Fritz to the rest of the corps of children. I'm not naming them because it's not their fault -- who let these children get onstage with such sloppy and rote moving and acting? Who told them it was enough just to be cute?

The vagueness dissipated somewhat with the arrival of the snowflakes, vivacious as ever, but a similar lack of attention was evident in most of the key players in the final act of variations. Gwyneth Muller, as Coffee, was atrocioius. This dance should be languorous, providing as it does ready pauses right out of Egyptian friezes. Instead it was brittle, rushed through. Coffee is supposed to be an odalisque. But Muller transformed her into a mincing floozy. Leading Candy Cane, Sean Suozzi looked just plain bored. Georgina Pazcoguin, as the female half of Hot Chocolate, may have been sabotaged by music director Faycal Karoui's speedy conducting, which almost forced rushing, and she was not its only casualty. Megan Fairchild's Dewdrop was suitably lissome, but I won't remember it a week from now. Without forgetting Daniel Ulbricht, who so perfectly punctuated his darting arms and fingers in "Tea" that he almost made me forget how irksome this outdated racial stereotype is, Alina Dronova's lively Marzipan, Rebecca Krohn's gracefully tilting Flower, or the musicality of Joshua Thew's posing and primping as Mother Ginger, the evening's only real transcendence came from Jennie Somogyi's Sugarplum Fairy and Jared Angle's noble Cavalier. Coming in the wake of the rushed pantomime of the first act, Somogyi's phrasing was impeccably distinct and clean. Everyone else, particularly the kids, should be made to watch it again and again on the replay until they get it right. Not only was not one nuance fudged, every gesture, every fold of a calf, every flip of a heel, even the undulations along the plane of her feet were drawn as deliberately as in a painting. Not just vertically, but even the horizontal jutting of her leg and accompanying bent knees were clear.

But in the end, it wasn't enough. "The Nutcracker" is a dance play that depends on belief, and the conveyance of belief by the children in the first act. It's said that Balanchine decided to change his dream from music to dance -- and thus change the destiny of an art form -- when he had a children's role in the Imperial Theatre's production of "Sleeping Beauty." If Balanchine had been in this production of "Swan Lake," he would have stuck with music. (And violin soloist Kurt Nikkanen's eloquent and moving playing might have inspired him to do so.)

At the end of it all, even though the audience clearly wanted to give the cast a second curtain call -- Somogyi and Angle, at least, deserved it -- the powers that be at New York City Ballet decided to bring the lights up right away, as if they wanted to flee the scene of the crime while they still could.

Pithiness aside, here's the real crime in what Peter Martins has done to this production. "The Nutcracker" is not just a money-maker. It is a dream-maker. If it can't lift up the audience -- principally by lifting up its own youthful perfomers to a higher level -- then perhaps the doomsayers are right, and ballet is dead -- at least in the house that Balanchine built and where, apparently, the rats now are given free reign.

PS: $100 million -- that's what Koch gave to renovate the New York State Theater -- and there are still lines outside the women's rest room.

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