Servants' portrait exhibit strikes chord in class-conscious Britain

Sunday, December 21, 2003

Knight Ridder Newspapers

On the art-vs.-commerce battleground, the scenario is all too familiar.

"The Nutcracker," as nearly everyone knows, is what keeps ballet companies across the country afloat, often providing a fourth or even a third of annual revenue.

Along come media giants Cablevision and Clear Channel with a splashy new touring show, Rockettes' "Radio City Christmas Spectacular," set to blow all the poor "Nutcrackers" out of the water.

Ballet leaders, and consequently many newspapers, have portrayed the new rivalry as a dance to the death. "The New York grinch who stole Christmas," read a Boston Globe headline on a story that had "Nutcracker" producers characterizing the corporate-backed competition as a "sinister phenomenon."

Pennsylvania Ballet officials are already fearful that its "Nutcracker" -- which opened Dec. 5 for its 35th annual run -- will soon feel the heat from the Rockettes or another blockbuster show.

But if early ticket sales are an indication, "Nutcrackers" across the nation are hardly getting the sugarplums kicked out of them by the leggy kick-line from New York. The entire story will not be known until the "Nutcrackers" end their run.

But consider:

In Milwaukee, where the Rockettes have pulled into town for the holidays, the Milwaukee Ballet's "Nutcracker" is selling as many tickets as last year (as of last week), according to Robert Eiseman, ballet executive director.

The Rockettes and Pacific Northwest Ballet's "Nutcracker" seem to be peacefully coexisting in Seattle. "Nutcracker" ticket sales are about $800,000 ahead of this time last year, says executive director D. David Brown.

"I don't sense that it has had a huge impact on our audiences," said Paul Kaine, executive director of Nashville Ballet, of "Nutcracker" patrons in a city where the Rockettes are performing their third and final season.

At Miami City Ballet, facing a close but not concurrent run of its "Nutcracker" with the Rockettes in Broward County: "It does not appear that the Rockettes have affected us adversely," says company spokesman E.L. "Pete" Upham.

The Boston event is a big one. Boston Ballet recently learned that it is being ejected by its longtime host, the Wang Center for the Performing Arts, which, it is rumored, will instead bring in the Rockettes next season. And Ballet Arizona says it still has not recovered from the arrival in Phoenix last season of the Rockettes, with "Nutcracker" sales down about 22 percent.