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The New York grinch who stole Christmas

Radio City's Rockettes get leg up on `The Nutcracker'

They appear anything but threatening on stage, a smiling chorus line reeling off rounds of eye-high leg kicks. But to producers of "The Nutcracker" ballet across the country, the Rockettes have come to represent a more sinister phenomenon. One market at a time, from Tampa Bay to Seattle, the "Radio City Christmas Spectacular," the touring version of the glitzy New York tradition, has moved in, threatening to take over the all-important holiday market.

Boston is the latest battleground, now that the Wang Center for the Performing Arts has decided to kick out Boston Ballet's "Nutcracker" and replace it, starting next year, with the same Radio City show that has other ballet companies reeling.

"The first year, they just ding you," says Sherry New, executive director of Ballet Arizona, referring to the Radio City show that opened in Phoenix in 2002. "The second year, I hear, they can devastate you." After the Rockettes arrived, ticket sales for Ballet Arizona's "Nutcracker" plummeted 40 percent, New said. She's not alone. In Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, and a host of other cities, the Rockettes have become a central player in the holiday season faceoff between local arts productions and deep-pocketed national touring companies.The masters of "precision dance" haven't targeted ballets, per se. But by swooping into the market, the Cablevision-owned "Christmas Spectacular," which features the Rockettes, live animals, and Santa Claus, has been hurting ballet companies, which depend on "Nutcracker" revenues for as much as 40 percent of their annual budgets. Although the Rockettes' producers say they aren't ready to discuss a Boston run publicly, the "Christmas Spectacular" presents a daunting challenge in all locales. Each year, the touring show sells between 800,000 and 1 million tickets nationwide, according to Radio City.

Since launching the first touring "Christmas Spectacular" in Branson, Mo., in 1994, the Radio City show has entered 17 markets. There are now five touring units which, working in shifts, will reach eight cities this holiday season. Denver and Boston will be added next year.

The show can adapt to a variety of venues, from college arenas to renovated opera houses. In most cities the companies putting on the Nutcracker stay put. But in Minneapolis -- as in Boston -- the touring show forced a "Nutcracker" production out of its traditional home. And the Rockettes aren't the only competition. Over the last decade, an increasing number of touring commercial shows have cut into "Nutcracker" ticket bases, according to John Munger, research director for the Washington, D.C.-based Dance/USA, a service organization for the dance world. Across the country, paid attendance to "Nutcrackers" has dropped by 10 percent since 2000, according to Munger's survey of 18 companies. Last year, attendance for Boston Ballet's production dropped 12 percent. The "Nutcracker" accounts for almost 30 percent of the organization's $20 million operating budget.

"You get `Disney on Ice,' you get your `Beauty and the Beasts,' you get this enormous proliferation ranging from the huge, with preestablished name recognition like the Rockettes, to small, locally produced Christmas shows," says Munger. "There's only so much audience, there's only so many theaters, and only so much time."

The Radio City production is a melange of Christmas-themed entertainment, featuring the "Parade of the Wooden Soldiers," a living Nativity, and, of course, Santa. Somewhere in the mix there's a brief adaptation of "The Nutcracker," in which teddy bears dance in a little girl's dream.

In business terms, the show has clout few others do. It is owned by Cablevision, the New York company whose holdings include Madison Square Garden, the New York Knicks, and the New York Rangers. It is also often promoted by Clear Channel Entertainment, the media giant that owns radio stations, talent agencies, and theaters. That allows the "Christmas Spectacular" promoters to immediately dominate a region's advertising market, blanketing area billboards and using Clear Channel's radio network.

"I'm prepared for losing a good percentage of our audience," says Martin Fredmann, the CEO and Artistic Director of Denver's Colorado Ballet. The "Christmas Spectacular" comes to Denver next season.

But he's also prepared for a fight. To reposition "The Nutcracker," Fredmann is deemphasizing its high-culture heritage.

"What we have to do, sadly, is advertise our show as a great spectacle, a great show, and great family entertainment," says Fredmann. "We will not use the word ballet."

Forty statuesque Rockettes command the stage in New York. For the touring show, the number ranges from 20 to 24. While the show has run at Radio City Music Hall in New York City since 1933, the roaming Rockettes have set up shop on the road for between one and 10 years. In Detroit, the production is entering its seventh season. In Branson, it wraps up a decade-long run this December.

But in other markets -- Indianapolis and Minneapolis, for example -- the show has popped in for a year or two.

It's unclear how long the touring Rockettes will stay in Boston. An internal memo on the Wang's Oct. 21 vote to bring in the "Christmas Spectacular," obtained by the Globe, only mentioned 2004.

To compete, "Nutcracker" producers are trying to be more creative with their more limited promotional dollars. That includes making deals with local bookstores to hand out "Nutcracker" bookmarks, sponsoring contests in which the winner gets a walk on role, and placing more emphasis on radio and TV ads.

Most of all, ballet directors are trying to stay focused on the production. "I like to use a corny old phrase that if a farmer spends his time worrying about what the farmer across the road is doing, he's not going to take care of his own crops," says Robert Eiseman, executive director of Milwaukee Ballet, which will compete with the Rockettes for the first time this December.

In Boston, the first challenge is to find a new home for "The Nutcracker, " which draws about 120,000 people a year, after this year's run at the 3,600-seat Wang. Mayor Thomas Menino has suggested the company consider the Hynes Convention Center, which could accommodate about 2,300 seats. Valerie Wilder, executive director of the Boston Ballet, has agreed to take a look. The ballet has produced "The Nutcracker" at the Wang since 1968. Wilder says she knows the Rockettes are a threat, but she believes Boston Ballet is bigger in terms of budget and production size than the companies affected in other cities.

"Those were not huge, major full-year ballet companies," says Wilder. "I don't think `The Nutcracker' is doomed here. For one thing, it's been part of this community for so long. Second, it's not just a show you pull together and put on the stage, it includes 400 children from the largest ballet school in North America."

Colorado Ballet's Fredmann has come up with his own plan for taking on the Rockettes. This year, during the "Nutcracker" battle scene, he's choreographed a spot for the toy soldiers to briefly lock arms and kick in synch. "Let everyone know," says Fredmann. "We have a kick line, too."

Geoff Edgers can be reached at gedgers@globe.com.

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