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Snowflakes waltzing in the original 1954 production of The Nutcracker; choreography by George Balanchine © The George Balanchine Trust; photo by Alfred Eisenstadt

George Balanchine created The Nutcracker as an idyllic snowglobe ode to his St. Petersburg youth—but when the ballet made its world premiere at City Center, the atmosphere backstage was anything but idyllic. In 2007, Robert Sandla spoke with veterans of the first Nutcracker about the ballet’s hectic creation and its extraordinary survival. We’re delighted to reprint the article now, as New York City Ballet’s Nutcracker enjoys another holiday season. (A few relics from the 1954 premiere—including the Grandmother’s cape—still appear onstage.)

Americans didn’t know The Nutcracker in 1954. Or rather, what people knew was the Nutcracker Suite, a greatest-hits set of divertissements from the full-length Tchaikovsky ballet. Walt Disney put his marketing muscle behind it with Fantasia in 1940, and Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo bourréed across America with various versions of the Suite in the 1940s. The first full-length professional Nutcracker in this country wasn’t presented until 1944, when Willam Christensen created one for San Francisco Ballet.

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December 16, 2016 by New York City Center

Damian Woetzel, Ron Myles, and Lil Buck in rehearsal in Vail, photographed by Patrick Fraser.

For just over two weeks every summer, an illustrious and varied ensemble of dancers, musicians, and choreographers come together in the spectacular Rocky Mountains to present the Vail International Dance Festival. The level of creativity is as heady as the altitude, with artists throwing themselves into unexpected collaborations and taking on unfamiliar repertory, creating world premieres in a condensed timeframe and with an adventurous sense of possibility.

“Beautiful place, tons of collaborations, amazing dancers, and a huge mesh of cultures,” is how Lil Buck, the astounding Memphis jooker, sums up the Vail vibe. This November, Lil Buck will be among the many Vail mainstays headed east for Vail Dance Festival: ReMix NYC, presented by New York City Center. A star-studded four-day extravaganza, ReMix will capture the unique collaborative energy that has become Vail’s signature under artistic director Damian Woetzel.

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October 4, 2016 by New York City Center
Balanchine with Cigarette

George Balanchine in April 1942, photographed by Joseph Janney Steinmetz.

This February, City Center has George Balanchine on the brain. First, the Balanchine-staged 1940 musical Cabin in the Sky will be revived by Encores! from February 10-14. Then, the acclaimed Pacific Northwest Ballet will present a program of three Balanchine masterpieces from February 24-25. Dance writer Marina Harss looks into the legendary choreographer’s evolution.

It is said that when the American art critic and impresario Lincoln Kirstein lured George Balanchine—born Giorgi Melitonovitch Balanchivadze in St. Petersburg—to America with the idea of founding a ballet company, the choreographer had one condition: “First, a school.” No sooner had he arrived in the US, in the fall of 1933, than he set about realizing this plan.

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January 22, 2016 by New York City Center

On April 13, 2015, the acclaimed ballerina Wendy Whelan spoke with three generations of the celebrated d’Amboise dance family as part of City Center’s Studio 5 series. 80-year-old Jacques d’Amboise began dancing in the studio at 1949, and he held forth with the gregarious, dishy charm of a legend back in his old stomping grounds. Roving the studio like a stand-up comic, d’Amboise demonstrated the proper way to take a bow, shared his theory that Balanchine had Tourette’s (“His face was like a symphony orchestra warming up”), and even found time to plug his soon-to-be-published novel. “It’s a thriller—sex, violence, backstage at the ballet,” he said with relish. “And it’s called Pas De Death.”

“He’s not even joking,” said Whelan.

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June 8, 2015 by New York City Center
Violette Verdy

Damian Woetzel and Violette Verdy, photographed by Erin Baiano.

On November 9, 2010, dancer-turned-director Damian Woetzel created a Studio 5 event that highlighted three signature George Balanchine ballets from 1960. The night ended up being a tribute to the lyrical, idiosyncratic, and wildly apt language of Violette Verdy, who danced with the New York City Ballet from 1958 to 1976 and was on hand to coach a new generation of NYCB dancers. “You don’t want to be safe; you can’t afford it,” she told Tiler Peck of a gesture in Donizetti Variations. Of the quiet intimacy of Liebeslieder Walzer, she said, “You have to take a pilgrimage into have to go inside to come out with the answer.”

Verdy knew what she was talking about: Balanchine created two of the ballets specifically for her, and he adapted the third, Donizetti Variations, to showcase her gifts. “It was lovely, because we didn’t struggle,” explained Verdy. “It was like he gave valentines to each one of us.”

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December 1, 2014 by New York City Center