The orchestra launched into the tuneful old Tchaikovsky score, the curtain rose on a well-stuffed parlor, and for the next two hours Manhattan ballet fans lost themselves in George Balanchine's newest ballet, a full-length re-creation of The Nutcracker. It was one of the most cheerful evenings of make-believe the ballet had seen in years.
The scene was an old-fashioned Christmas party, decked out with a tall tree, stacks of packages wrapped in red ribbonand twelve children (from Balanchine's School of American Ballet) tumbling about the stage in colorfully costumed tumult. Then, when the last guest had gone, and Clara, the little daughter of the house, had sunk into a Christmas night dream, the grownups took over. In Act II came the company's stars, one after the other, to dance through Clara's dream. Among them were Maria Tallchief as the Sugar Plum Fairy, Nicholas Magallanes as her Cavalier, and Tanaquil LeClercq as the Dewdrop (Waltz of the Flowers}; Francisco Moncion undulated through an antic Arabian Dance.
Balanchine had also stuffed his show with property magic. As Clara watched through dreaming eyes, the family Christmas tree began to grow onstage, heaving itself up out of the floor branch by bigger branch until its top disappeared in the flies. The window of the room broadened and heightened until the scene passed through it, outdoors into a snow-smothered pine forest, and a realistic blizzard of white confetti blew on the Snowflake Waltz. When the curtain fell, first-nighters broke into happy, rousing applause. After a dozen curtain calls for the cast, Choreographer Balanchine came out for a slightly embarrassed bow himself: he had not bothered to wear a necktie that night.
It was the most ambitious effort in the New York City troupe's history. For settings, it called in Metropolitan Opera Designer Horace Armistead, for costumes, Broadway's Karinska, and the company's own Jean Rosenthal for production and lighting. Between them, they staged as eye-filling a spectacle as ever blossomed on Broadway.
Nutcracker cracked the New York company for a stout $80,000, but by week's end it seemed certain to pay off: the public had bought out all announced performances. Perhaps the only dissenting voice was raised by Dance Critic John Martin of the Times, who pointed out that Nutcracker has too little formal dancing and not even much plot, advised fellow purists, unless bringing children, to skip the first act.