For so many American kids, it's their first — and sometimes only — exposure to ballet: A holiday performance of "The Nutcracker," that classic tale of a little girl's dreamlike encounters with battling mice and toy soldiers, a dashing prince, a growing Christmas tree and a land of sweets.
There's one in virtually every town. But until now, if you lived in Anchorage or Omaha or Tulsa, you weren't able to see what many consider the Nutcracker gold standard: the late George Balanchine's classic production for New York City Ballet.
On Dec. 13, though, the company will beam a live "Nutcracker" performance in high-definition from Lincoln Center to some 560 movie theaters in all 50 states, followed the next night by a live broadcast on public television.
In taking its "Nutcracker" national, the company hopes to promote its brand, earn new revenue and join a growing trend of HD transmissions of live performance, pioneered by the Metropolitan Opera.
"There's nothing like the real thing," says an admittedly "totally biased" Peter Martins, the company's ballet master in chief. "Of course, the hope is that if this works — however you define success — it will become a new way to show the world what we do so well."
Martins — a former principal dancer with New York City Ballet under his legendary predecessor, Balanchine — grew up in Denmark and thus wasn't exposed to "The Nutcracker" until he came to New York as a young adult. But he's well aware of its crucial role as an introduction to ballet for generations of Americans — including virtually all his own dancers.
One of them is Ashley Bouder, who was 6 when she saw her first "Nutcracker" in Carlisle, Pa. — as it happened, she also performed in it as an angel. It launched a lifetime of dancing, and Bouder, who turns 28 on Saturday, is now an NYCB principal, known for her fearless, attacking style in jumps and turns.
"I do think this particular 'Nutcracker' is really special," said Bouder, who will dance the brief but demanding role of Dewdrop in both the live performances. "Balanchine's choreography is so wonderful, for children as well as adults."
Indeed, the choreographer is known to have been particularly masterful with children — as in the scene where eight rosy-cheeked kids suddenly emerge from Mother Ginger's 9-foot-wide skirt to perform an intricate yet buoyant dance.
Growing up in Spain, Joaquin De Luz never got to see a live "Nutcracker" as a child. The first "Nutcracker" he saw was Balanchine's — on DVD, the 1993 version put out by New York City Ballet with the young Macaulay Culkin as the prince.
"It's just magical," said De Luz, who'll play the main male role, the Cavalier, next week. "That growing tree in the first act just breaks your heart. This is the quintessential 'Nutcracker' — not too much of anything, not too little."
De Luz will be dancing with his frequent partner, Megan Fairchild, as the Sugarplum Fairy. It's better not to think too much about how many people will be watching, he said.
"This is a big deal," De Luz said. "I'm just hoping they won't do the close-ups when I'm wetting my lips or doing something else I shouldn't be doing."
That would be a minor mishap compared to last weekend, when Fairchild's costume suddenly got caught on De Luz's buttons during a lift. Such is the joy of live performing; he spent crucial seconds trying to yank the costumes apart before anyone got hurt.
"I finally ripped the whole thing," he said. "I'm glad it happened last Saturday. It's good to have an accident under your belt."
It's that coolness under pressure that Martins was looking for when casting the leads for next week's performances. "I have 12 casts and they're all fantastic," Martins said. "But this particular cast is very, very reliable. They will always deliver."
The ballet transmissions, produced by Live From Lincoln Center for the NCM Fathom theater network, are the first by an American ballet company (the Bolshoi Ballet and the Royal Ballet in London have done their own, as well as several opera companies and the National Theater in London.)
The two broadcasts will have high-profile presenters: Talk-show host Kelly Ripa on the 13th, and Chelsea Clinton, a known ballet fan who danced ballet as a child in Washington, on the 14th.
"We've been talking about doing this for a long time," said Katherine Brown, executive director of City Ballet. She said tickets appear to be selling well, but that it's hard to tell in advance because many people just show up and buy tickets on the spot.
Tickets cost more than an average trip to the movies — ranging from about $15 to $20, depending on the theater.
Although such HD transmissions in theaters are growing in popularity, they've raised the question of whether they could siphon off dancegoers who might otherwise seek out a live performance in their own communities. Could the New York City Ballet be considered, in other words, an unwelcome interloper?
Not at all, said a ballet presenter in Omaha, Neb., where the City Ballet version will hit the AMC Oakview multiplex next week.
"The more the merrier," said Trisha Hoffman-Ahrens, vice president of marketing and communication at Omaha Performing Arts. The organization is presenting a "Nutcracker" by the visiting Aspen Santa Fe Ballet this weekend at the Orpheum Theater, which it owns.
Like many American cities, Omaha gets Nutcrackers from various sources. The city's own Omaha Theater Ballet shut down in 2009. For the last few years, the Moscow Ballet touring company has visited, although not this year, Hoffman-Ahrens said. There's also a production at the city's Creighton University.
"It's great that we can get these fabulous companies from New York into the theaters," Hoffman-Ahrens said. "And this will never detract people from seeing a live performance in their own community."
Brown and Martins clearly hope this will be just the beginning. Future ballets that could be shown in movie theaters include other full-length works like "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and "Sleeping Beauty."
For now, though, the dancers have to pull off their best performances. And make sure not to forget the basics.
"I've got to remember to smile," Bouder quipped.