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Wang ousts `Nutcracker' for next year

For the first time in 35 years, the Sugar Plum Fairy is looking for a new home.

The Wang Center for the Performing Arts confirmed yesterday that it has decided to boot Boston Ballet's production of "The Nutcracker," an annual Christmastime rite that draws 120,000 fans a year. The show will be replaced by another, starting in 2004.

This year's Nutcracker run will take place as scheduled, but next year the Wang hopes to present the touring "Radio City Christmas Spectacular," according to the ballet's directors.

The decision was made at a difficult time for Boston Ballet, which recorded a 12 percent decline in "Nutcracker" attendance last year. Revenue from the show -- the organization's main moneymaker and a cultural event rivaled only by the July Fourth Boston Pops Esplanade concert -- accounts for almost 30 percent of the organization's $20 million operating budget.

The organization's money troubles forced it to cut 11 administrative and teaching jobs, cancel four performances of "Romeo and Juliet," and cut $3.5 million from its proposed budget. The company has reduced the number of Nutcracker performances this year, from 48 to 43. It runs Nov. 28 to Dec. 30.

The Wang president, Josiah A. Spaulding, Jr., declined comment through a spokeswoman, though the Wang confirmed in a statement that it is "pursuing other options for next winter."

The move lays bare the complicated relationship between two of the city's premiere nonprofit organizations. Boston Ballet is one of several arts groups to pay the Wang below-market rental rates. The Wang, in turn, makes up the difference with profits from commercial shows like "Phantom of the Opera" and "Rent."

"This is one very distressing issue," said Andrea Snyder, executive director of Dance/USA, the national service agency for the dance world, based in Washington, D. C.

"If venues are simply looking at the bottom line, that they've got to get butts in seats, and that's the bottom line rather than looking at the value of a civic organization, that's unfortunate. Boston Ballet has a place in the Boston community, and to substitute a touring show that has no relationship and no identification, simply because they need to make money, then we have a problem."

Boston Ballet's artistic director, Mikko Nissinen, said yesterday that he was shocked when he first learned of the Wang's decision on Tuesday night, but said that he's already started looking for a new home for the production.

"For the first three or four hours it was a debilitating thought," said Nissinen of learning of the news. "I got through the rehearsal, had a drink, and the next morning I said, `All right, let's take the bull by the horns and do something about this.' "

Finding another theater for "The Nutcracker" could be difficult, since it's unclear whether any other local stages are capable of supporting a production so large. One potential new venue, the Opera House on Washington Street, now under renovation, will house a touring production of "The Lion King" next year, brought to town by Broadway in Boston/Clear Channel Entertainment.

Boston Ballet's Nissinen said he had no reason to believe the rest of the season at the Wang is in jeopardy. The Wang statement said "Boston Ballet has been, and continues to be, a valued resident company in our theatre, as we hope and expect them to be for many years into the future."

"The Nutcracker," written by Russian composer Peter Tchaikovsky, is a staple of the modern ballet company. For children, it can be a first exposure to the arts, as they dress up to watch Clara's dreamy battle between the title character and the Mouse King. Over the years, thousands of young dance students have also been cast in supporting roles. "Unless the Wang Center's survival is at stake, to do that to the Boston Ballet is almost obscene," says Douglass Shand-Tucci, Boston cultural historian. "They know perfectly well that `The Nutcracker' is what keeps the Boston Ballet solvent. One wonders what might happen if the BSO didn't own Symphony Hall. I'm really quite amazed."

The Radio City show is a spinoff of the Christmas extravaganza that has run at the former Manhattan movie and stage palace for decades. Touring versions have appeared in cities from Phoenix to Chicago.

The Boston Ballet's executive director, Valerie Wilder, said yesterday that she had asked Spaulding whether the "Nutcracker" could alternate with the Radio City show, but was told that it couldn't.

"We're trying to be very upbeat," Wilder said. "What's our first reaction? Sure, we were shocked. When you hear news like that, the first thing is surprise and then you get on with finding solutions. That's where we're at now."

Nissinen said he has been making calls, though he wouldn't name other venues being considered. In 1982, Boston Ballet was forced to stage "The Nutcracker" at the Hynes Auditorium when the roof of the Wang, then known as the Metropolitan Center, was deemed unsafe.

Barbara Owens, head of the city's largest musician's union, said the news was stunning. "Boston Ballet's been through an awful lot in the last few years," Owens said. "And I can't imagine Christmas in Boston without `The Nutcracker' at the Wang."

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

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