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NEW YORK — When New York City Ballet’s master in chief, Peter Martins, handpicked principal dancer Charles Askegard to serve as the model for Ken in last year’s computer-animated DVD “Barbie in the Nutcracker,” it wasn’t the first time the dancer had been compared with the Mattel doll.
In one of Askegard’s early reviews, the critic deemed him and his partner, Julie Kent, the Barbie and Ken of “Rodeo.” His looks, no doubt, played a part. At 6 feet 4 inches, he is blonde and boyishly handsome with a picture-perfect, muscular build. And his Ken credentials were only enhanced when he married his own brainy Barbie earlier this year, the beautiful blonde writer Candace Bushnell. “She’s kind of Barbie,” he admits. “Her face and hair — but Candace is a little bit skinnier than Barbie.”
Fair enough. But to hear Askegard tell it, he was picked as Ken for only one reason. “Everything in ballet always happens around the women,” he says slyly. “Peter was thinking Maria [Kowroski] was going to be Barbie, and who would they get to be her partner?” For the record, Askegard dances much of his repertory with the blonde, Barbie-esque Kowroski, another principal dancer.
The pair headed to a film studio, where they prepared to be immortalized as the characters by computer software. They slipped into custom suits, strapped on sensors, gloves and a hat, and performed Peter Martins’ specially adapted “Nutcracker” choreography in front of 40 infrared cameras that captured their 3-D images.
“The whole process is mind-boggling, especially for someone who’s an artist,” Askegard says. “I’m just a dancer. I don’t get all that computer stuff. Now, it’s there forever.”
The result? Head to the nearest video store. Or catch the live version at Lincoln Center, where Askegard is performing the Cavalier in “The Nutcracker” which runs through Jan. 5. “The character really looks like me and dances like me — but with a different face. People who know me keep saying they can tell it’s me. It’s amazing that they can capture your data and not your exact image but it still ends up looking like you.”
The Barbie and Ken “Nutcracker” has been such a hit that sources say Mattel now is readying a similar version of “Swan Lake” for release during next year’s holiday season. Askegard would only confirm that he’s working on another project with the toy company. It would be the third holiday DVD released by Mattel, including this year’s “Rapunzel,” which had no ballet.
But who could turn down these perks? A “Nutcracker” Ken action figure, inspired by Askegard, was released last year, not to mention his fan base now spans all ages. “Everywhere I go, all the little girls know all about ‘Barbie in the Nutcracker,’” he says. “I even had people in my apartment building come up and say, ‘Hey, I saw you in the credit.’”