Which Nutcracker Is Right for You? [Comparison Shopping]

Every December, scads of little girls decked out in holiday frocks and Mary Janes flock to Lincoln Center to see New York City Ballet perform The Nutcracker. These young balletomanes might be shocked to learn that early audiences and critics didn’t share their enthusiasm for the ballet. Following its premiere in December 1892 in St. Petersburg, Tchaikovsky lamented: “The papers, as always, have reviled me cruelly.” But The Nutcracker persevered and in the mid-20th century landed in the U.S., where the Russian export has since become a thoroughly American tradition. Now, everyone from Ruth Page to Mark Morris has taken a crack (sorry!) at the ballet, imbuing his or her version with regional accents and personal preferences.

NYCB’s Nutcracker, choreographed by George Balanchine, is widely considered the definitive version (having grown up among the Lincoln Center Mary Jane set, we agree). It’s the one that hews most closely to the original — Balanchine danced in the ballet as a child in Russia — and other versions, no matter how spectacular, can’t help but seem like variations on Mr. B.’s theme.

NYCB also set the trend of creating a special holiday season devoted to The Nutcracker, a practice that not only delights little girls but also keeps companies in the black. Indeed, for many troupes, Nutcracker ticket sales account for up to half of their annual budget. This year, of course, even this old holiday favorite is hurting. According to the New York Times, at least two major companies — the Oakland Ballet and Cincinnati Ballet — are reporting a slump in sales. And Oregon Ballet Theatre announced last month that it will use recorded music instead of a live orchestra for 10 of its 16 performances this year.

But recession or no, the show must go on. And maybe we could all use a little Nutcracker to sweeten an otherwise sour year’s end. Here, we look to Lincoln Center and beyond for a survey of a few of this country’s most notable productions.

The San Francisco Ballet performed the first full-length American production, choreographed by William Christensen, in 1944. These days, the company performs artistic director Helgi Tomasson’s version, which premiered in 2004. In it, the action takes place in 1915 San Francisco, rather than 19th-century Germany, and instead of visiting the Kingdom of the Sweets, Clara dreams about sights from the Panama Pacific International Exposition. (Runs through December 28.)

New York City Ballet’s production, now known as George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker™, premiered in February 1954 and has been required holiday viewing ever since. (Runs through January 3.) If you can’t make it to Lincoln Center, check out the 1993 film version — starring none other than Macaulay Culkin as the Nutcracker Prince — on Ovation TV’s Battle of the Nutcrackers–Grudge Match.

Other companies that have adopted Balanchine’s version include Miami City Ballet and Oregon Ballet Theater, which claims the distinction of being the only company west of the Mississippi licensed to perform it.

Septime Webre, artistic director of The Washington Ballet, took a patriotic approach when he created his Nutcracker five years ago. Billed as “a thrilling tribute to our nation’s capital,” the production features George Washington as the Nutcracker Prince and England’s King George III as the evil Mouse King. Last year, former Virginia governor Mark Warner and Clinton adviser Vernon Jordan had walk-on roles. (Runs through December 28.)

Pacific Northwest Ballet celebrates the 25th anniversary of its Nutcracker, a collaborative effort between founding artistic director Kent Stowell and children’s author and illustrator Maurice Sendak. One of the country’s most acclaimed productions, it takes inspiration from the E.T.A. Hoffmann tale, The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, and the original 1892 scenario for the ballet. (Runs through December 30.) The film version is also part of Ovation’s Battle of the Nutcrackers.

Boston Ballet serves up a fairly traditional Nutcracker, but it reached out to a decidedly non-traditional audience this past fall in an effort to promote its 2008 production: Celtics fans. Members of the company provided halftime entertainment with a crowd-pleasing piece choreographed by dancer Melissa Hough and set to a mix of music by Britney Spears and Timbaland, with a little Tchaikovsky thrown in for good measure. (Runs through December 28.)

If you live in Chicago, the Joffrey Ballet’s Nutcracker, set in mid-19th century America, features sweeping antebellum gowns and Victorian scenery. It was the last ballet founder Robert Joffrey supervised before his death in March 1988. (Runs through December 28.)

Must-see: Mikhail Baryshnikov created a gorgeous Nutcracker for American Ballet Theatre back when he was part of the company. Check out the 1977 film version, starring a young Baryshnikov as the Nutcracker Prince and Gelsey Kirkland as Clara. Best part: When the Nutcracker magically transforms into the young and dreamy Baryshnikov and performs a pas de deux with Kirkland, all wispy and lithe in her white nightgown… it’s enough to set even the grinchiest hearts aglow.