Notwithstanding that the first full length U.S. production of The Nutcracker was in San Francisco in 1944, most people associate it with George Balanchine’s more widely seen version for New York City Ballet which dates from 1954. The dance fan next to me aptly said, “this is the ur-Nutcracker.” For better and for worse, that’s probably true. But the magic of The Nutcracker goes far beyond any individual production.

New York City Ballet in George Balanchine's <i>The Nuctcracker</i> © Paul Kolnik
New York City Ballet in George Balanchine's The Nuctcracker
© Paul Kolnik

Arriving at Lincoln Center, I was treated to the spectacle of many young girls showing off their arabesques and doing pirouettes around the fountain. This trend continued into the lobby of the theater and was prevalent during intermission. There may have been boys doing it too but I didn’t see them. Throughout the evening, I heard and saw children humming along and getting caught up in the excitement of the big night. This is a gateway drug to ballet and they all love it. The transformation scene in which the tree grows and everything gets large is what it’s all about. The dazzling allure of the snow scene and the trip to the Land of Sweets is a feast for the eyes. This is the magic; the ability of a performance to transport children so that they become lifelong devotees, constantly looking to re-live that magical experience. It’s transformational, transcendental… it’s theater, and it's going on in ballet companies all around the world right now.

With respect to this year’s opening night at New York City Ballet, first the good news. Musically, this was a great performance by the orchestra under the baton of Andrews Sill. Tchaikovsky’s score is one of his greatest and even people who know nothing about ballet are familiar with much of it. The waltzes sweep you away no matter how hard you try to resist. Arturo Delmoni, the solo violinist, was pitch perfect.

Ashley Bouder in George Balanchine's <i>The Nuctracker</i> © Paul Kolnik
Ashley Bouder in George Balanchine's The Nuctracker
© Paul Kolnik
Ashley Bouder tore it up as the Dewdrop Fairy. She came flying out, sizzling and crackling. Her turns and balances were rock solid and her jumps were as great as I’ve ever seen from her. She made The Waltz of the Flowers a high point for me. Then there was the always stellar Sterling Hyltin who was smooth as silk as the Sugarplum Fairy. There are never any rough edges to her dancing and I’m pretty sure she single-handedly convinced at least a dozen young girls that a career in ballet was their destiny. Andrew Veyette, a solid partner, looked perfectly dashing as her Cavalier. All the variations were danced well with Daniel Ullbricht getting the lion’s share of the applause for his turn in Candy Canes. Erica Periera was great leading Marzipan and Aaron Sanz was campy fun as Mother Ginger. Alston Macgill showed huge potential as Columbine with stellar form in his dancing.

A few trips and stumbles are par for the course during The Nutcracker and this night had its share. There are a lot of kids to wrangle and things will go amiss. Among the company dancers, this is a time when many of them will be tried out in solo parts for the first time and they’re subject to frequent mishaps as well. All those accidents may be charitably forgiven in the holiday spirit. Where the performance was lacking was in thestorytelling. This is often a problem at NYCB. You just don’t feel the dancers are fully inhabiting the characters they’re playing and they haven’t spent enough time thinking about the inner lives of their characters or their place in the narrative. The men casually tossed off their capes as though they’d never worn them before, the women seemed unfamiliar with their shawls, and they all generally moved in a manner that was not consonant with their costumes.

Daniel Ulbricht in George Balanchine's <i>The Nutcracker</i> © Paul Kolnik
Daniel Ulbricht in George Balanchine's The Nutcracker
© Paul Kolnik
The gestures of greeting at the party were perfunctory at best and phony at worst. Children trading movie star-like air kisses is frankly not appealing. There were many blank spaces where the story stopped and waited for someone to pick it up and begin doing something. It wasn’t terrible by any means but the ballet didn’t feel as fully realized as it should.

Overall, for that special evening out during the holiday season, you can’t go wrong with New York City Ballet’s warhorse version of The Nutcracker. It comes with all the bells and whistles that you could ever want. Your kids will love it but be aware that it may end up costing you a fortune in ballet lessons down the line. Never mind the little shortcomings; they won’t notice and chances are you won’t either because you will be so caught up in their joy. Just make sure to watch the little ones around the fountain so they don’t grand jeté into the water.