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‘George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker’

By Joe Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 26, 1993


Emile Ardolino
Macaulay Culkin;
Darci Kistler;
Kyra Nichols;
Wendy Whelan
General audience

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Is it coincidence that flu season arrives each year with "Nutcracker" season? We're about to be hit with the annual epidemic of the holiday ballet, and this year it looks to be more virulent than ever (and there is no vaccine). There's a flurry of video versions and live performances on stages in every city and small town -- even Chelsea Clinton is getting into the sugarplum scene.

This season brings a feature film version that cynically dangles Macaulay Culkin, the "Home Alone" kid, as toddler bait in the role of the Nutcracker Prince. Beware: This "Nutcracker" is school-pageant-stiff and tutu dull.

The whimsical story, the Christmas Eve dream of a young girl (Jessica Lynn Cohen) about a wooden nutcracker that comes to life and escorts her through a candy-crammed fantasy world, is smothered in a deadly Good-For-You soberness. Sulkin' Culkin looks like he'd rather be doing homework. Dressed in a pink suit, he dances very little; when he does stiffly bow and caper, he seems to be playing charades. You can almost hear the director hiss "Smile, Mac!" before Culkin turns on one of those million-dollar smirks.

The photography and production design are unaccountably dreary and dowdy; the profusion of dark blues and whites is quickly tiring, even narcotic (there are several shots of dozing dads in the opening Christmas party sequence); and the original sets and costumes from George Balanchine's 1954 New York City Ballet staging look dated and unimpressive on film. Kids are clued in to what's going on with hushed narration by Kevin Kline, a last-minute addition to the film. Culkin's meddlesome stage dad Kit Culkin reportedly had a tantrum to have the narration removed, but be grateful that it remains.

This "Nutcracker" has an impressive dance pedigree -- Balanchine's choreography has been restaged by NYCB Ballet Master-in-Chief Peter Martins, and the corps includes such stellar dancers as Darci Kistler and Damian Woetzel as the Sugarplum Fairy and her Cavalier. There are plenty of pitfalls in presenting dance on film, however, and the director -- the late Emile Ardolino, who gave the world "Dirty Dancing" -- succumbs to all of them, cutting the dancers off at the hips, editing with a short attention span, focusing on faces and indulging in far too many pandering shots of the ballet kids imitating and reacting to the dancers.

The predominantly prepubescent preview audience behaved admirably, but attention melted and restlessness set in before an hour. The crowd came to life only once, with a refreshing wave of giggles when Woetzel's Cavalier appeared in tights.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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