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.”