The 'Nutcracker' industry has gotten so big that commercial television is cutting itself in on a slice of the action this year The Christmas ballet about a little girl's dream of a toy transformed into a handsome prince will be seen in competing versions on two networks - CBS tonight at 8 and NBC Sunday evening at 7.
CBS brings us the Mikhail Baryshnikov production for American Ballet Theater, with Baryshnikov and Gelsey Kirkland as the Nutcracker prince and Clara. This is the version that had its premier at the Kennedy Center last year, and which ABT is about to restage there in two-week run starting Tuesday.
NBC enlisted former First Lady Betty Ford to be the host of the Bolshoi Ballet's "Nutcracker," shot at a live performance in the company's home theater in Moscow.
Despite the considerable flaws of these quite different versions - neither comes close to rivaling the magic and excitement of alive staging - they're bound to introduce millions of children and parents an enchanging seasonal entertainment.
"The Nutcracker" in any version has some foolproff enticements, impervious to the miscalculations of network.Tchaikovsky's melodious and endlessly ingenious score makes its own easy conquests, and the story, borrowed from one of E.T.A. Hoffman's celebrated "Tales," has a Christmas party, an eccentric toymaker, a battle between mice and toy soldiers, a snow forest and a kingdom of candy, among other charms.
The strength of the NBC production lies in the rare chance we get for a glimpse of the sumptuous Bolshoi company on its own stage, as well as of its superlative lead dancers.
The NBC show by accident, turned out to be a double-header, Vladimir Vasiliev and his wife Ekaterina Maximova, two of the company's foremost dancers, were originally cast as the Nutcracker and the girl (Masha, in Russia). But when Vasiliev suffered a foot injury at the end of the first act, the second half was taped with a new set of principals - another husband-wife team, Vyacheslav Gordeyev and Nadia Pavlova, outstanding among the Bolshoi's younger echelon.
The CBS version has the magnetic performances of Baryshnikov and Kirkland, both of them eminently photogenic, and the particular, winsome appeal of Baryshnikov's choreography and some imaginative effects in its translation to the TV screen.
NBC labored at the outset against the disadvantages of live shooting. The camerawork is stiffly conventional, mostly head on and from the same relative height, and takes scant advantage of video's possibilities for enhancement.
The major drawback in the Bolshoi production, however, is Yuri Grigorovich's choreography, which, at least as it appears to us through this televised prospect, is far too stodgy to do justice to the score or story. Clara's steps, for instance, have nothing of childhood innocence or sweetness about them - they are stereotyped ballerina routines out of the Bolshoi stockpile. And while Tchaikovsky's music swells with crescendo in the scene of the miraculous growing Christmas tree - the sight being the highpoint of stagecraft in so many productions - virtually noghting is happening on the Bolshoi stage. The "Waltz of the Flowers," danced in notably unfloral courtier costumes, is designed in dull, squared-off platoons.
Unlike the IBM-sponsored CBS show, the NBC "Nutcracker" is slashed by long commercial breaks. The musical performance is sluggish. And Betty Ford, a good friend to dance her White House days, makes a weak impression, with a rigid smile, halting speech and eyes riveted to cue cards.
Seeing the Bolshoi version makes one realize how much more CBS had to work with the caseof the into work with in the case of the inspired Baryshnikov choreography, with its wonderfully distinctive characterizations of Clara, the Nutcracker, the Mouse king and the rest of the cast. The trouble here was an unwillingness to trust the dance.
Abetted by advance taping, the CBS production tonight uses its cameras and editing to frequent, imaginative advantage. Close-ups bring us right up to the emotional reactions of the dancers. Dissolves and superimpositions endow the growing Christmas tree and the falling snow with dream-like qualities. When Baryshnikov leaps to attack the Mouse King and his horde, sword and hobby horse in hand, a low, tilted shot adds to the visual agitation.
The overriding impression of the production, however, is one of fear - fear that the audience will lose interest if the imagery isn't constantly shifted, dolled up and explained.
Spoken narration detailing the plot wholly unnecessary in a ballet as lucid as this, easily understood by tots - breaks in over the music. The visual editing is cut-happy, no one shot lasting for more than a few seconds. This cut bodies in half, shows us faces when it's the feet that are interesting, and mutilates the choreography. So the program captures some of the flavor and individuality of the Baryshnikov staging, but sacrifices much of its dance appeal.
This is not the first time that "Nutcracker" has appeared on television, even this year (Utah's Ballet West version was rebroadcast on Public TV a couple of weeks ago). But it is assuredly the first time two such prestigiuos productions have been on the networks. CBS originally set it airdate for Christmas Day, but it moved it up when NBC unrapped its Bolshoi plans - counterprogramming they call it.
Meanwhile, the live "Nutcracker" deluge is at hand while ABT prepares for its Kennedy Center run, the Washington Ballet offered last night the first of 23 soldout performances at Lisner Auditorium of its "Nutcracker," and versions by the Maryland Ballet, the Virginia Ballet and other area troupes are sill to come. There are sugar plums in evetry direction, and an apparently insatiable consumer appetite for them.