“Balanchine’s is better,” began WWD’s review of the American Ballet Theater’s “Nutcracker” in 1976. The opening performance on Dec. 21 was the debut of famed dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov as a choreographer. Though the production was loosely based on Vasily Vainonen’s version for Leningrad’s Kirov Ballet, WWD’s critic maintained it was “an essentially western vision, oddly Freudian in conceit.”
George Balanchine’s production had been the most popular version of the ballet in America since 1954, and Baryshnikov’s take was indeed quite different. Where Balanchine had used children in many roles — eliminating the romantic inferences in the story — Baryshnikov’s dancers were adults. His was a darker production that could be read as a metaphor for growing up or “the waking of the sexual urge.” And though the WWD review points out the first act pas de deux for Clara and the prince as “lovely,” the climactic trio as “intensely beautiful” and the mice as “marvelously wicked,” the reviewer obviously preferred the innocence of Balanchine’s production. “The ballet lacks magic,” he says, “and it lacks music, and what else is ‘The Nutcracker’ about?”
Today, Baryshnikov’s “Nutcracker” is one of the most popular versions of the ballet. It is televised regularly and is also one of two versions of the ballet to have been nominated for Emmys — the other was Mark Morris’ intentionally exaggerated and satirical take on the ballet from 1992.