Classic, Flashy, Naughty: Which Nutcracker Works for You?
By EDWARD WYATT
Published: November 26, 2007
From Baryshnikov to Barbie, anyone who has ever spent time on toes, it sometimes seems, has danced “The Nutcracker.”
But whose “Nutcracker” is the best? Ovation TV, one of the few television channels devoted exclusively to culture and the arts, is determined to find out.
Over the next month Ovation will wage the Battle of the Nutcrackers, pitting four well-known interpretations of the classic Tchaikovsky ballet against one another for viewer votes and pride of place in a Christmas Eve marathon, which will be followed by back-to-back Christmas Day repeats of all four versions.
“It will be better than the Yule log,” Kris Slava, senior vice president for programming and production at Ovation, said in an interview, referring to the holiday tradition of televising burning logs in a fireplace accompanied by holiday music, begun in 1966 by WPIX-TV in New York.
The contenders in the inaugural Battle of the Nutcrackers cover a wide range of styles, from the staidly classical to a kaleidoscopic hallucination. In the first category are a 1989 performance by the Bolshoi Ballet, featuring Irek Mukhamedov as the Nutcracker Prince, and the 1993 film “George Balanchine’s ‘The Nutcracker,’” staged by Peter Martins and featuring Darci Kistler as the Sugar Plum Fairy and Macaulay Culkin as the Nutcracker. At the far-out end of the spectrum are “Matthew Bourne’s Nutcracker!,” a 2003 performance of the colorful fantasy that begins in a Dickensian orphanage, and “The Hard Nut,” a 1991 piece by the Mark Morris Dance Group, which uses the Tchaikovsky score but transports the setting to 1960s American suburbia.
When the idea of the Battle of the Nutcrackers was first floated about a year ago by a member of the investment group that had recently purchased Ovation, “everyone immediately saw the appeal of being able to compare and contrast different versions,” Mr. Slava said.
“The more you see of any one piece of classical performance,” he said, “whether it is Shakespeare, Eugene O’Neill or ‘The Nutcracker,’ the more you can appreciate each individual performance of it.”
And be honest: Who has not sat through innumerable, if unfortunately not quite forgettable, performances of “The Nutcracker”?
Thankfully for viewers of the “Nutcracker” marathon, these performances are more likely to be at the pleasant end of the scale. Ovation, which is available beyond basic packages as a digital-tier channel in several metropolitan areas, including New York, and nationwide on DirecTV, will begin the battle at 8 p.m. Eastern time on Dec. 2 with three showings of Mr. Bourne’s confectionary dreamscape.
That will be followed on Dec. 3 by performances of the Bolshoi version, which Mr. Slava described as “a dancer’s ‘Nutcracker,’” traditional and devoid of much of the holiday trifle that infuses most American performances. On Dec. 4 comes the Mark Morris “Hard Nut,” which has been loved and loathed for its modernist setting and costumes, which include go-go boots and G.I. Joe knockoffs.
Finally, on Dec. 5, is the Balanchine-Martins staging, narrated by Kevin Kline and featuring several New York City Ballet regulars, including Ms. Kistler, Damian Woetzel and Kyra Nichols.
The performances will be repeated during afternoon hours Dec. 11 to 14, then reversed in order and rebroadcast in the evenings, Dec. 16 to 19. Through the 19th viewers will be able to vote for their favorite at OvationTV.com, which is also planning to feature blogs and commentary on the productions. The people’s choice winner will be shown in repeated performances on Dec. 24, followed by the marathon of all candidates the next day.
The wide range of interpretations leaves Mr. Slava uncertain about which might be the fan favorite. No matter, he added: “I think of this like a Picasso exhibit. You can go around the world and see all of these paintings individually. But it doesn’t have the power or the urgency of seeing them all together, in one place at one time.”
That is in keeping with Ovation’s strategy of expanding televised access to the arts, which have largely disappeared in recent years from broadcast and cable television. Change comes slowly, however, and Ovation is unavailable on cable systems in many major markets, including Los Angeles.
The channel, which began operations in 1996, was acquired last year by a group that included Hubbard Media Group, the Weinstein Company, Perry Capital and Arcadia Investment Partners. It has tripled its distribution in the last year, to about 15 million homes, largely as a result of being added to a premium tier of the DirecTV satellite system. Charles Segars, Ovation’s chief executive, said the company was working to secure further cable access in larger markets and to add video-on-demand and online offerings.
If the Battle of the Nutcrackers goes as planned, Mr. Slava said, he hopes to pit this year’s winner against some other famous performances, perhaps including those by Baryshnikov and Nureyev. He would not promise to include Barbie’s 2001 animated version in the mix, although, he noted, few people are as experienced as she at standing for long periods on their toes.
As a backdrop to Christmas Day, Mr. Slava said, “few things offer the entertainment and comfort of ‘The Nutcracker.’” After a pause, he added, “Unless you are going to an action movie and eating Chinese food.” But that, of course, is a different classic.
"I wish I could score everything for horns." - Richard Wagner. "Our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts." - Friedrich Nietzsche