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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


Liz Gerring, Pam Tanowitz, and Michelle Dorrance, photographed by Matt Karas.

At City Center, what you see onstage is just the beginning. Behind the back wall of the theater is a hive of creative activity: nine stories of rehearsal rooms, offices, and dance studios that were inaugurated by Balanchine in the 1940s. You might find the likes of Twyla Tharp, Wendy Whelan, and Kyle Abraham rehearsing there on a given afternoon. This season, three acclaimed choreographers will take up residence, thanks to City Center’s Choreography Fellowship program: Liz Gerring, Pam Tanowitz, and Michelle Dorrance.

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October 13, 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
Sylvie Guillem in BYE

Sylvie Guillem in Bye, photographed by Bill Cooper.

After an unparalleled career that has spanned nearly 35 years of ballet and contemporary dance, Olivier Award winner Sylvie Guillem will give her farewell performance on the American stage in Life in Progress, a dance program of both existing and new works, at City Center from November 12-14, 2015. Life in Progress began an international tour on March 31 produced by Sadler’s Wells in London, where it is currently playing; Guillem’s only United States appearance will be at City Center.

In Life in Progress, Guillem will dance two new works: Akram Khan’s technê, a solo accompanied by live musicians, and Russell Maliphant’s Here & After, a duet with La Scala dancer Emanuela Montanari. The program will also feature Mats Ek’s touching solo Bye, which was made especially for Guillem, and William Forsythe’s Duo (1996), performed by two male dancers, Brigel Gjoka and Riley Watts.

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May 28, 2015 by New York City Center
Jacob's Pillow 2013

Wendy Whelan, backstage at Jacob’s Pillow in 2013. Photo by Christopher Duggan.

Last September, at an event at New York City Center, the former New York City Ballet star Damian Woetzel looked Wendy Whelan in the eye and said, “You’re gipping the system.” Whelan laughed heartily. The thirty-year veteran of New York City Ballet was about to retire, at the age of 47. Unlike most ballerinas in the late stages of their careers, however, she wasn’t planning to quit dancing. She had already launched her own independent project, an evening of duets called Restless Creature, which had premiered at Jacob’s Pillow in the summer of 2013. A tour was planned for the months after her farewell at City Ballet, with a New York premiere at the Joyce in May. Before taking her leave from one career, Whelan had begun a new one, still a dancer, but on her own terms.

First, she had to settle a score with her body. Not long after the Jacob’s Pillow appearance in 2013, Whelan underwent surgery on her right hip for a complex labral tear. Without getting too graphic, the labrum is a ring of cartilage that lines the hip joint, where the femur meets the socket. Rupture means pain and loss of flexibility. As Whelan has explained, “I couldn’t do a fifth position”—which is like a pianist not being able to play a C Major chord. After trying every kind of therapy she could find, Whelan finally decided to go under the knife. Her recovery was remarkable but slow. By last fall she was back onstage at New York City Ballet, debuting in an extraordinary role created for her by Alexei Ratmansky in his Pictures at an Exhibition. It captured her unique qualities: that ineffable poetry, the ability to make every moment count, and her powerful presence.

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March 24, 2015 by New York City Center