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Dance in Time: December
In December, we honor the birthdays of National Ballet of Cuba artistic director Alicia Alonso (1921–; Havana, Cuba), who became an internationally acclaimed ballerina despite being partially blind; influential choreographer Sir Kenneth MacMillan (1929–1992; Dunfermline, U.K.), artistic director of The Royal Ballet and associate director of American Ballet Theatre; beloved teacher and ballerina Violette Verdy (1933–2016; Pont-l’Abbé, France), noted for her musicality in performances with London Festival Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, and New York City Ballet; famed NYCB and ABT dancer Gelsey Kirkland (1952–; Bethlehem, Pennsylvania), a frequent partner of Mikhail Baryshnikov; Broadway actress and dancer Bebe Neuwirth (1958– ; Princeton, New Jersey), who went from such musicals as Sweet Charity and Chicago to TV sitcom fame (Cheers, Frasier); and former Frankfurt Ballet dancer, now artistic director of Kidd Pivot and choreographer, Crystal Pite (1970– ; Terrace, British Columbia, Canada), who received a Laurence Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in Dance in 2015.
On December 18, 1892, Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov’s Nutcracker premiered at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg, Russia. Based on an E.T.A. Hoffmann story, “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King,” and with an unforgettable score by Tchaikovsky, the ballet was one half of a double bill with Tchaikovsky’s opera Iolanta. Fifty-two years later, on December 24, 1944, an American tradition was born when the first complete Nutcracker ever staged in the U.S. premiered at San Francisco Ballet, choreographed by Willam Christensen.
On December 1, 1949, George Balanchine’s Bourrée Fantasque premiered at NYCB. The original cast included Tanaquil LeClercq, Jerome Robbins, Maria Tallchief, Nicholas Magallanes, Janet Reed, and Herbert Bliss.
On December 1, 1957, Balanchine’s iconic Agon opened at NYCB. Set to music by Stravinsky, the ballet’s premiere was danced by Todd Bolender, Barbara Milberg, Barbara Walczak, Roy Tobias, Jonathan Watts, Melissa Hayden, Diana Adams, and Arthur Mitchell.
On December 16, 1977, the now-classic disco film Saturday Night Fever opened nationwide. John Travolta, as dancer Tony Manero, wowed viewers with his dance moves (purportedly, he danced three hours a day to prepare for the role) and made a fashion statement with his white suit.
On December 16, 1993, the musical version of the 1948 film The Red Shoes, choreographed by Lar Lubovitch, opened on Broadway at the George Gershwin Theatre. Its 51 previews didn’t save it from closing after only five performances—but the three days it ran allowed Leslie Browne (of ABT and The Turning Point fame) to make her Broadway debut, as Irina Boronskaya.
Quotable: About Dance
Evidently you can leave The Nutcracker, but The Nutcracker may never leave you. The ballet’s rhythms and a host of associated memories don’t disappear, they just get filed away in part of the brain and released in flashbacks filled with sometimes inchoate memories and emotions. Some artistic directors and longtime ballet veterans call these flashbacks ‘Nutmares,’ but that’s another story. Beneath the anti-Nut rhetoric there are usually soft spots for the iconic seasonal ballet. You don’t have to have danced to feel this on some level—just witnessing exquisite performances or watching people strive to do their best can do it. Seeing your daughter or any child trying to embody the gracious manners and attempt complicated steps can pluck the heartstrings.
(from her book Nutcracker Nation)