DanceView Times, New York edition
celebration of George Balanchine:
Let’s Take a Trip and Playhouse 90: The Nutcracker
George Balanchine, born in the early years of the 20th century, was one of the great forward-thinking artists. As new technology emerged, he was quick to incorporate or use it. His works, such as Episodes and Agon, reflected an influence of the mechanical age. In the early years of the information age, Balanchine though originally skeptical saw the New York City Ballet perform his works regularly on television during the 1950s through the 1960s on the variety shows popular at the time.
Although invaluable as lasting records, the performances on The Bell Telephone Hour, The Ed Sullivan Show and the Voice of Firestone were often filmed in less than ideal circumstances—cement floors, limited space, and last minute casting changes. In addition, the early recording equipment made the dancers’ noses appear long and their legs look short.
Balanchine, who advanced the art of ballet in films in the 1930s, developed a strong relationship with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and was pleased with the results produced and aired between 1956 and 1979. His decision to have a large amount of his ballets filmed in Germany soured him to the filming experience. Director Hugo Niebeling made strange camera angle and editing choices. Balanchine derided the 1978 Live at Lincoln Center broadcast of Coppèlia, which featured too many long-range shots, for making his ballet look like “dancing matchsticks." It was only after he worked with the Dance in America crew for the “Choreography by Balanchine” series that Balanchine truly felt comfortable to re-envision his work on television.
Balanchine’s work on television and film is the subject of a series held by the Museum of Television & Radio in New York and Los Angeles in honor of the great choreographer’s centennial. Nine sets of screenings are scheduled from December to March, as well as a seminar in January featuring Suzanne Farrell, Edward Villella, Live at Lincoln Center executive producer John Goberman.
The MTR’s first offering opened with February 26, 1956 episode of Let’s Take a Trip, a Saturday morning children’s show hosted by Sonny Fox. Fox, along with children Ginger MacManus and Pud Flanagan, visit the old School of American Ballet studios. The enter during a class taught by Anatole Oboukhoff. Ginger is particularly excited. She is studying ballet and has even brought her practice costume. After being greeted by Balanchine, Ginger soon learns she is out of her league. Whereas she only takes two classes for about 1 hour, 15 minutes, an SAB student Lily takes 90-minute classes at least three days a week. Balanchine gives Ginger the once-over. While she has good legs and arches, Ginger (who is a bit plump) is told she is “fat” by Balanchine. He asks her, “How many helpings do you have?” Ginger says she has three a day, while Lily has just one or two. Some things never change.
Dancers Patricia Wilde, Nicholas Magallanes, and Carolyn George are introduced next. With Pud’s musical suggestion, Balanchine—with steps and ideas easily pouring forth—choreographs variations on Yankee Doodle on the trio. Two years later, he would create his ultimate tribute to the United States, Stars and Stripes.
Also prophetic is the next sequence. Tanaquil LeClercq, Balanchine’s wife at the time, and Jacques d’Amboise perform an elegant (and quick) pas de deux from the Nutcracker. Afterwards, the pair is asked about the New York City Ballet’s upcoming tours. D’Amboise goes through the troupe’s US tour, while LeClercq details the company’s trail through Europe later that year. In late October while NYCB was in Copenhagen, the 27-year-old ballerina was struck with polio. LeClercq never walked again.
If LeClercq had not gotten ill, it is most likely she would have performed Dewdrop, the part she originated, in The Nutcracker, which was broadcast on the CBS arts series Playhouse 90 in 1958. Created in February 1954, George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker has a long, extensive history on television. The Christmas favorite (and Balanchine’s first full-length ballet for NYCB) was first shown in its entirety on TV in 1956 on CBS’s Seven Lively Arts program. Excerpts from the ballet were televised no fewer than 12 times between 1954 and 1971. Even now, bits of the work, mostly the Sugar Plum Fairy’s variation or the pas de deux, are shown on mainstream TV.
Most notable for the Playhouse 90 broadcast is the appearance of Balanchine as Herr Drosselmeyer. Studied by some future Drosselmeyers, Balanchine’s performance is detailed, but subtle. A performer and choreographer in the 1929 film Dark Red Roses, Balanchine knows when to get hammy, like when he is bitten by the nutcracker while trying to fix the toy.
The Nutcracker has gone through a great many changes since 1954. The Playhouse 90 show, filmed in color but shown at MTR in black and white, finds the ballet in transition (and shortened in order to fit in the time slot). By this time, the grand pas de deux has been omitted. The men from Chocolate, Coffee, Tea and Candy Canes support the Sugar Plum Fairy, performed expansively here by Diana Adams. Coffee (the Arabian Dance) is in its original form, featuring a hookah-smoking nobleman fanned by four parrots. The part was later rechoreographed in 1964 to a sexy solo for a woman, something for the daddies in the audience, Balanchine said. As performed by the sinuous Arthur Mitchell, the role was something for the mommies in the audience. It is interesting to consider how the audiences of the 50s viewed this dance, performed by a sensuous black man.
A baby ballerina, Allegra Kent, is Dewdrop, Villella leads the Candy Canes, Judith Green is the Marzipan shepherdess, Barbara Walczak and Roy Tobias lead Chocolate, Deni Lamont performs Tea, while Debbie Paine (Clara) and future NYCB member Robert Maiorano (Nutcracker prince) fill the lead children’s parts. Girls take almost all of the boys’ parts during the first act.
When the ballet was filmed in 1993, the use of Kevin Kline as a narrator was criticized. But June Lockhart narrated the production in 1958 and served as general host. The screening is uncut, so we get to see the quaint commercials for Kleenex and a decidedly un-politically correct one with cartoon Indians.
Balanchine’s use of television helped in the transformation of the New York City Ballet as an institution. No doubt he would have adapted well to the digital age.
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