Live Music Returns to City Ballet … There’s No Pulling Strings for Polichenelles

Live Music Returns to City Ballet

The two-week New York City Ballet orchestra strike ended Tuesday afternoon, Dec. 7, in time for the musicians to be back that night where they belong–in the pit of the New York State Theater, playing Tchaikovsky’s great score for The Nutcracker . The dispute ended in confused anticlimax: An agreement between management and the orchestra’s negotiating committee was reached over the weekend, and then broke down over a “miscommunication”–a step forward, I guess, from the noncommunication with which the whole sorry story began. Monday afternoon and evening, the orchestra met for more than five hours to go over the proposed settlement, and Tuesday at 1 in the afternoon it met again to take a secret ballot. The vote was 43 to 19 in favor of ratification.

For once, the big issue in a labor dispute was not direct compensation, although the new agreement calls for a 3.7 percent increase to the base pay for the musicians in the first year of the three-year contract, and for raises in each of the next two years. The heart of the matter was the company’s determination–late, but not too late–to do something about the scandalous deterioration of the music at the State Theater, a particularly dismaying scandal since music was the rock on which George Balanchine built his city. Ugly sound, wrong notes, missing notes have become increasingly familiar. The musical direction has grown slacker and slacker–it’s no secret that the company has been unable to hire a strong new musical director because of the absurd rules and attitudes that have come to govern the orchestra’s performance.

The central problem, as Peter Martins, the company’s director, realized, was a set of practices that allowed orchestra members to pick and choose which performances and rehearsals they would attend–with no direct correlation between rehearsing and performing. The result amounted to 40 percent absenteeism, with individual orchestra members deciding when they would send in a substitute, someone perhaps unrehearsed who presumably would learn what the conductor wanted from remarks scribbled on the score! Meanwhile, the absent orchestra member might be off playing a lucrative outside gig.

City Ballet has been tiptoeing around this issue for years; now, with a strong board, capable management, money in the bank, and Mr. Martins reluctantly willing to perform to recorded music, the company faced it squarely: The orchestra’s negotiating committee was notified early on that a mutually acceptable solution had to be found. But even though the orchestra’s contract expired on Labor Day, the committee didn’t agree to meet with the company until Nov. 8. As it had in 1976, during the last strike, the orchestra was playing the Nutcracker card: Wait till the last minute and then threaten to shut down for the biggest box-office weeks of the year.

This time, after their negotiating committee rejected a compromise solution, the orchestra struck the season’s opening-night benefit gala and the Nutcracker s that followed. But the musicians had miscalculated. Nutcracker went forward to taped music, and there were few complaints from the public. Significantly, the company’s dancers and stagehands, who are also union members, were out of sympathy with the orchestra and agreed to cross real and symbolic picket lines. As the facts emerged, the orchestra faced a public relations disaster barely averted by the recent agreement.

The new contract lays down a series of rehearsal and performance guidelines that will certainly help to cure the musical problem. But perhaps even more important is a “statement of primacy” accepted in the new agreement, which, according to the company’s press release, asserts that “performing for N.Y.C.B. is of primary importance to each musician, and that other performance work is secondary.” This may not seem like a radical idea, but it’s a crucial one. It’s what Peter Martins is referring to when, at the close of his three-sentence statement, he says, “We are delighted to have our musicians back, acknowledging, as they finally have, their commitment to the company.” By sticking to a vital principle while deploying the regrettable but unavoidable tactic of performing to recorded music, City Ballet has gone a long way toward recovering control over its own artistic destiny.

Certain aspects of this unnecessary fiasco were all too familiar to me. In 1976, I was on City Ballet’s board of directors and part of the company’s negotiating team throughout the eight or nine months in which we failed to reach an agreement (the issues were finally resolved through binding arbitration). This was my first labor action, and it was an eye-opener. Although I was there to help the company achieve its aims, I had some sympathy for the orchestra–in my family we were Roosevelt and La Guardia admirers, and people like us didn’t cross picket lines. Besides, these were musicians on strike– artists –the men and women who made up ballet’s greatest orchestra; they were Balanchine musicians.

This was not the attitude of Lincoln Kirstein, the great cultural impresario who had brought Balanchine to America in 1933 and was still a dominating presence in the company they had founded together. Much as I revered him, I was startled when he dismissed the musicians as disgruntled journeymen who had dreamed of solo careers and resented their status as mere pit players. Soon enough, I came to sense in the musicians an implacable determination to wrest every possible advantage from City Ballet, no matter how much damage they might inflict.(This seemed true, of the anyway, orchestra’s small negotiating committee; later it occurred to me that the kind of performing artist who volunteers to take up arms against management probably has a lot in common with the firebrands who enjoy serving on co-op boards or running P.T.A.’s.)

Here’s how it worked back then: the company would make a proposal, and the committee would take hours, or days, to consider it–while we waited, trapped in an anonymous room high above Seventh Avenue with nothing to do but the crossword puzzle. Then the orchestra’s representatives would come in with minimal adjustments to their original over-the-top demands; during these sporadic, rancorous exchanges, no progress was possible. The whole thing was like being in a plane or watching porn–endless stretches of boredom punctuated by bursts of extreme agitation.

The orchestra clearly wasn’t interested in getting down to realistic bargaining until Nutcracker loomed and the prospect of much lost revenue strengthened its hand. These are standard tactics in collective bargaining, but they weren’t standard for me, whose previous negotiating experience, as a publisher, had been with authors and agents and other publishers, always in hope of reaching an agreement quickly and painlessly.

The crucial difference between now and then is George Balanchine. In 1976, he was in his 70’s and naturally eager to keep his company performing while still able effectively to oversee it. The silent determinant in those negotiations was everyone’s desire to satisfy him–which meant resolving the situation at the first possible moment, even by accepting potentially damaging arbitration. Balanchine himself, though, even if restless and concerned, remained Olympian. At a crisis point some months after the strike–the contract agreed upon but not signed, with only a trivial issue not yet settled–the orchestra threatened to strike another opening-night gala. The dispute was resolved at the last possible moment–as the dancers were warming up and the audience was filing in. We rushed to the theater with the news that the performance would go forward, and found Mr. B and his assistant, Barbara Horgan (today, head of the George Balanchine Trust and the George Balanchine Foundation), calmly sipping champagne in his room on the fourth floor of the State Theater. Balanchine remarked that he had picked up and started over again many times before, beginning in 1924 when he defected from Bolshevik Russia, and he was prepared if necessary to do it again: Princess Grace, he liked to remind us, had offered him refuge in Monaco.

Today, my only official relation to City Ballet is as an observer (often negative) for The Observer . To see what a Nutcracker without live music was like, I went to the company’s annual free performance for New York school kids. The time was 11 in the morning. The orchestra, tactfully, was not picketing, the children were thrilled and the performance was brilliant. Of course one missed the orchestra, particularly at the high swelling moments of the score–what we got was Tchaikovsky-flavored background sound. But it worked well enough to justify Mr. Martins’ decision. And the casting was a gift. Having in the first week of Nutcracker s relegated Maria Kowroski, the company’s most beautiful and gifted young ballerina, to a few turns as the sexy Coffee–Balanchine’s gift to the tired businessman–she was finally allowed to go on as the Sugar Plum Fairy, a role she was made for. (As hard to understand as the musicians’ obduracy is the company’s perversity in pursuing its civil-servicelike casting policies.) Charles Askegard was a noble cavalier, Jennie Somogyi as Dew Drop continued to reveal her Balanchine clarity and attack, Alexander Ritter was more dancy than most Drosselmeiers, yet was individual in his mime and characterization, Dena Abergel actually danced Coffee rather than just undulating, and Christopher Wheeldon charmingly made more of the Host than is there. The Christmas tree miraculously grew and grew, the magic bed circled the stage, the Mouse King was triumphantly dispatched, the Snowflakes swirled about, the Candy Canes and Angels and Marzipans joyously disported themselves, the children in the audience screamed their delight, and I was transported and moved, as I always am when Nutcracker puts its best foot forward. Strikes, negotiations, rancor seemed far away. As my son said to me as the curtain came down, when ballet is this beautiful, your anxieties just disappear.

– Robert Gottlieb

There’s No Pulling Strings for Polichenelles

Nutcracker ticketholders are undoubtedly relieved that the New York City Ballet reached a settlement with its orchestra. But the musicians’ two-week strike seems to have had little effect on the morale of the cast’s mice and bunnies and tin soldiers. “It’s still Lincoln Center,” observed 11-year-old Isabel Magowen, one of the Polichenelles who pop out from under Mother Ginger’s skirts, and who performed in the first three performances, to taped music, until a stress injury to her right foot sidelined her for a couple of weeks. “You’re still performing there.”

George Balanchine’s Nutcracker at the New York State Theater has long been as much a staple of the holiday season as sidewalk Santas, the tree lighting at Rockefeller Center and gridlock. But in the old days, parents were generally content just to buy their kids velvet party dresses and seats–if there were any left to be had–for them and their best friends, and then to keep their fingers crossed that the little ones wouldn’t nod off or demand to go to the bathroom in the middle of the Sugar Plum Fairy’s Act 2 solo.

But these days, dinner and the theater aren’t enough for the sophisticated New York City youngster. For some families, the magic of the holidays means securing their little one a role in the Nutcracker and schlepping him or her back and forth to rehearsals throughout the fall so that he or she, but mostly she, gets to experience the singular rush of stardom, preferably before she turns 10.

“You’re not just a little spot on the world,” explained Isabel, a sixth grader at the Chapin School. “You’re something. There are so many kids who would love to do it, and you’ve been picked.”

To satisfy society’s ever-growing ranks of aspiring prima ballerinas, Nutcracker companies are proliferating in the city and suburbs. Choreographer Francis Patrelle, using students from Ballet Academy East, throws a professional-caliber Nutcracker each year, complete with ringers such as Jock Soto and Miranda Weese, recruited from the New York City Ballet. The Manhattan Ballet School also mounts a version of the Tchaikovsky classic that its founder, Elfride Merman, a regal former Russian ballerina, likes to think of as more nurturing than the Lincoln Center one. “We don’t say you have to lose 10 pounds,” she said.

Still, there’s nothing quite like Balanchine’s Nutcracker , the professionalism demanded of even its tiniest tin soldiers and the rush of excitement as the New York State Theater’s massive curtain rises. It’s about more than bragging rights at recess. It’s an on-the-job arts education, par excellence. It’s boot camp in learning how to focus and follow directions from stern ballet mistresses who knew “Mr. B.” personally. It’s the ultimate after-school activity.

“It’s taking that discipline to the next step,” explained Chris Ramsey, the New York City Ballet’s director of external affairs. “We do a 45-night run. There are a lot of life lessons.”

Isabel Magowen joined the School of American Ballet, from whose ranks aspiring sugar plum fairies are plucked, at age 8. Admission is the result of two cattle calls, each May and September. This year, 128 children tried out, many of them from girls schools such as Chapin, Nightingale-Bamford, Spence and Brearley, and 41 were selected. Candidates typically try out when they’re in the third grade and usually make their Nutcracker debut in their second year at the school.

“It’s a madhouse,” said a mother whose recollections of the auditions may be clouded by her own daughter’s subsequent rejection. “There are several hundred little girls with their mothers. They tell everybody to take a number, and you wait indefinitely. We were No. 8 or 10, but there were people who were there six hours later.”

Perhaps the Nutcracker ‘s ultimate allure is that in a city where everything seems for sale, you can’t buy your way in. “I can’t say, ‘That’s a Rockefeller–take her,'” said a School of American Ballet official, who confessed that he’s tried. “Ballet is a very cruel thing. Even if you’re going to turn into a swan, if you’re a dumpling at 8, you can’t do it.”

Tutors are powerless to make a difference. “You can’t just have wonderful performing qualities,” lamented another mother whose daughter didn’t make the cut. “You have to have the wonderful natural ballet body to go along with it.”

Chris Ramsey prefers to frame the issue in terms of art rather than eugenics. “Balanchine didn’t believe in watering down the choreography,” he explained. “He believed in challenging children.”

Isabel’s mother Nina was happy but unsurprised when her daughter made the cut. “I just feel she was born to dance,” she explained. “She came out of me dancing. Sometimes you see it clearly early on.”

While the school’s alumnae include Vera Wang, Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka, and Bette Midler’s child Sophie, agreeing to underwrite the ballet’s annual benefit apparently doesn’t improve the chances of one’s child landing even a walk-on role in the party scene. The teachers at the audition know the children only by number, thus preventing favoritism from infecting the selection process.

“This is not some kiddy matinee at the junior high,” said Tom Schoff, the school’s director of development. “At $82 a ticket, people aren’t going to say, ‘They’re cute. Too bad they’re not on the music.'”

Mr. Schoff attributes the plethora of petite ballerinas from the city’s better girls schools to word-of-mouth rather than to their moms’ and dads’ abilities to write fat checks. “In the public schools, if there’s only one or two girls doing it, it doesn’t become this hot topic at recess time,” he explained, adding that in the last few years the school has made a greater effort to reach beyond the Upper East Side, holding auditions in Harlem, Chinatown and the Bronx.

An official offered Bette Midler’s daughter Sophie as proof that the School of American Ballet is a meritocracy, even in the mouse corps. “She’s got another name,” he said, referring to Sophie’s father, Martin von Hasselberg. “We didn’t know who she was until somebody saw Bette Midler in the waiting room,” after her daughter had been admitted. “We all took our turn walking nonchalantly through the waiting room.”

And what about Ivanka Trump, whose bodyguard waited backstage while she did her party-scene star turn? “She came with a friend and auditioned,” the official recalled. “She was very good, a very pretty little girl. But, I mean, she didn’t get to be Marie. If we were buying things, she’d be the star.”

The roles keep getting harder as the dancers get older, as do the demands on their bodies, which sometimes refuse to blossom into the Balanchine ideal. “At the end of the year, you get a comment,” explained the mother of a dancer who left the company before she was pushed. “If you get the comment ‘stocky,’ you know you’re not long for the place.”

“There’s not much feedback,” observed Nina Magowen. “The compliment is the fact that you’re asked back and are moving on to the next division.”

Isabel, a delightful, exuberant young dancer, suffered a brief setback when she was sidelined with the stress fracture. “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, what if he doesn’t let me dance for a really long time?’ and I was hysterically crying,” Isabel admitted. “And this is probably my last year to be a Polichenelle. I was crying when the doctor put the cast on. And then he told me I could probably get it off a week from Friday.”

The dancer’s immediate goal is to get her cast removed before Dec. 11, when the Nutcracker holds its family benefit, complete with celebrity masters of ceremonies–Ms. Midler did the honors one year, Big Bird another. Best of all, the ballerinas get to come out in their costumes and get fawned over by their friends, some of whose parents have spent up to $10,000 on tables.

Isabel seems to have little doubt she’ll be asked to keep dancing with the New York City Ballet as long as she wants, “because I love to do it,” she said with a self-confidence well beyond her years. Whatever triumphs or disappointments await her, she, like every other girl and boy who has appeared in the Nutcracker , will be able to brag about her moment in the spotlight.

“It was such a thrilling moment,” Mrs. Magowen recalled of Isabel’s triumphant, if extremely brief, debut as the bunny in Maria’s dream, during her first year at the school. “The toy world is coming alive. The trumpeter comes out and blows the trumpet, and the bunny does a little march with a drum. It’s just a wonderful moment. And the music is great, too.”

– Ralph Gardner Jr.