If the New York City Ballet dropped the live orchestra for a taped soundtrack in its current production of The Nutcracker, you can be sure critics would howl. And yet you might have gone away from the New York Times' Nov. 25 review of the production wondering whether there had in fact been a live orchestra and conductor (not to mention a boychoir) involved in the production.
Dance critic Alastair Macaulay wrote lovingly of the dancers, but made no mention of the musical forces. It might have been nice if somewhere in the 857-word review he would have found space for one more: Tchaikovsky. George Balanchine is mentioned four times, but it is apparently not all that significant that well before Mr. B. came along, the piece was brought into the world by a composer.
Regular readers of ArtsWatch will recognize this subject as a leitmotif. Why do dance writers, and sometimes even dance companies, forget that without the music, dance would be, well, absurd? It's an especially salient point now that a few troupes have decided to let their orchestras go and use taped music instead.
It's not just a question of giving credit where credit is due. But as a reader, don't you want to know something about how the music and dance relate to each other? Isn't the score integral to the thrill of The Nutcracker? Would the Sugar Plum Fairy be able to charm or could Mother Ginger draw a giggle if there were no music? What percentage of the joy of The Nutcracker comes by way of the orchestra? The growing Christmas tree would be a dull sight indeed without Tchaikovsky's transforming music to send a chill up your spine.
We've asked Macaulay about the oversight, and will include the response should we receive one. [Update: Macaulay had this to say: "Space was tight; we had to cut my para about the three conductors. I hope to return to the subject around Christmastime. In general, as I hope you know, I try to mention the musical side a fair deal."]
The New York City Ballet website confirms that, yes, the production does use a live, 62-member orchestra and alternating conductors.
So, too, is there a living, breathing orchestra, by the way, in the pit for the Pennsylvania Ballet's Nutcracker (pictured), whose Dec. 8 performance is its first of 23 this season. Tickets here.