Times Music/Dance Critic

"A Christmas without 'The Nutcracker,' " the wise Confucius reputedly observed, "is like a fish without a bicycle."

In other, less bountiful Yuletides, the blighted denizens of green Christmasland have had to make do with hand-me-down "Nutcrackers," quasiprofessional "Nutcrackers," school-exercise "Nutcrackers" and/or little-league "Nutcrackers."

No one but the occasional Scroogical critic complained too much, however. The multitudes were content so long as collective spirits were high on both sides of the proscenium, so long as the festively adorned tree in the first act grew before our wondering eyes, so long as the kiddies got to dance-dance-dance and so long as the source of the superbeloved Tchaikovsky suite remained reasonably sweet.

This year, however, the prescribed tippy-toe adventures are different--drastically different.

This year, the indomitable "Nutcracker" comes to us in a big, bright, elaborate, expensive, glamorous, glittery, deck-the-halls package. This year it comes courtesy of Mikhail Baryshnikov and American Ballet Theatre.

Friday night, our financially needy benefactors from New York opened their first holiday marathon at the 6,600-seat, partially renovated Shrine Auditorium with a gala benefit performance-cum-party. Before the end of the year, they will manage to cram 17 "Nutcrackers" into 11 hopefully blissful performing days, with an ever-changing array of dancers gracing the central roles.

The quaint and heart-rending ritual, incidentally, threatens to become habit-forming. More of the same has already been announced for next December, at which time the local ABT celebrations will be preceded by an additional network of "Nutcrackers" to confirm the cultural awakening of deepest and darkest Orange County.

The Sugar Plum Fairy, one would like to say, is suddenly being very generous to Southern California. Truth, however, compels one not to say that. Baryshnikov's somewhat unusual version of everybody's favorite introductory ballet--created in 1976 and last seen here in January, 1978-- doesn't happen to employ a Sugar Plum Fairy.

Baryshnikov doesn't even deliver Mother Goose with hordes of urchins hidden in her voluminous skirts. Nor does he bother with the usual pseudo-exotic Arabian divertissement.

In the long run, however, he doesn't slight the fun, and he doesn't turn his back completely on the lingering charms of tradition. What he gives us can be fairly described as a lavish, beguiling, thinking man's "Nutcracker." Hallelujah.

This, you may recall (from the constant PBS replays or from the distant Music Center performances), is the "Nutcracker" that concerns itself essentially with young Clara and her coming of age. Baryshnikov makes the heroine an active participant in the drama, a lovable, frightened figure teetering on the brink of womanhood, a sensitive, vulnerable girl torn between reality and dreams.

In his quest for psychological affect, Baryshnikov allows his ballerina few star turns and no prima-donna allures. It is significant that his Clara gets to wear no filmy tutu; a simple nightgown must suffice throughout. And at the end of the celebrated, passionate pas de deux with her dream prince, she cannot indulge in anything as showy as a fish-dive climax; perching on the danseur's knee and smothering him with a great big hug seems eminently more appropriate.

The Nutcracker-turned-prince is, virtually by definition, a less interesting challenge. He can be little more than a wooden symbol at the outset, little more than a bravura cavalier or courtly porteur in the second act. Still, Baryshnikov requires uncommon strength, intricate precision and, most important, idealized manly purity from his protagonist.

It is old Drosselmeyer who functions, in many ways, as the most crucial force on the stage. He isn't particularly old in this staging, however, and he certainly isn't the source of comic relief or supernatural menace that we have come to expect from other incarnations.

Baryshnikov makes him mysterious, sympathetic, shadowy--an elegant manipulator in black who does a great deal more than mime magic tricks. He hovers about Clara, protects her, inspires her, even joins her and the prince in a tensely competitive, subtly erotic pas d'action. Ironically, perhaps, he is made to function simultaneously as the irresistible herald of fantasy and as the sobering voice of reality.

If memory serves, the current revival is a bit tighter and simpler than the original. The changes seem hardly disadvantageous. Most of Baryshnikov's choreography bows gracefully to the past yet, avoiding exaggeration and cheap effects, sustains its own deft definitions of poignance and character.

Although the one overt borrowing--Vainonen's convoluted "Snowflake Waltz"--emerged as something of a muddle Friday, the lines will no doubt untangle with repetition.

The principal trio on opening night was easily dominated by the single holdover from the original cast: Alexander Minz as Drosselmeyer. Returning to the company as a guest after a lamentable five-year absence, he offered an eloquent demonstration of suavity, refinement and mature expressive economy.

The romantic duties were decently, correctly, rather blandly executed on this occasion by Leslie Browne as a somewhat stilted, one-dimensional, stock-pretty Clara and Kevin McKenzie as a perhaps too tasteful, too self-effacing, slightly shaky Nutcracker-Prince.

The numerous character roles, all nicely etched, found Raymond Serrano neatly doubling as the dumb grown-up who breaks the nutcracker at the Christmas party and as the nasty Mouse King, Gil Boggs and the especially mercurial Johan Renvall bringing down the house with spiffy Russian antics, Alina Hernandez and David Cuevas igniting a few sparks in the Spanish duet. The assorted toy soldiers, mock children, acrobatic clowns, dancing dolls, attendant nasty-comic rodents and ubiquitous waltzers performed with gusto.

Paul Connelly treated Tchaikovsky--and the dancers--with stylish respect in the well-staffed pit.

Boris Aronson's picturesque sets and Frank Thompson's storybook costumes stay safely clear of kitsch indulgence. Jennifer Tipton's sensitive lighting scheme reinforces the pervasive aura of wistful poetry.

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