In "The Nutcracker" ballet, toy soldiers duel with a band of mice. But the stage battle has nothing on a behind-the-scenes brouhaha in Baltimore involving rival import productions of the holiday season confection.
Officials of two area productions of "The Nutcracker," including the version by the Moscow Ballet that arrived this week at the Morris Mechanic Theatre, have objected to the tone of advertising for a third production due at the Lyric Opera House later this month.
Yet representatives of that production, by the Donetsk Ballet of Ukraine (scheduled Dec. 18-23 at the Lyric), have questioned the artistic credentials of the Moscow Ballet. And the Moscow group has been the target of a complaint to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service regarding its dancers' visas, although it has since been acknowledged the complaint was based on misinformation.
The rivalry between the companies mirrors the uneasiness between the states of Russia and Ukraine following the dissolution of the former Soviet Union. But some in the local arts community worry about the impact.
"To tell children that they're going to be cheated by the performance of another group is unfair,"complained David Simon, director of the Baltimore School for the Arts, which has a production of "The Nutcracker" scheduled Dec. 10-19.
"A dirty pen does not do any good for the arts," said Akiva Talmi, the producer of the Moscow Ballet "Nutcracker," which runs through Saturday at the Mechanic.
Both referred to the Donetsk Ballet's advertisements that appeared in The Sun. An ad Nov. 21 said, "don't cheat your children," and one Nov. 28 said, "it pays to be patient." Both said the Donetskcompany offers the only "Nutcracker" this season with a live orchestra.
"There are some people who are going to be influenced by that," contended Mr. Simon, objecting to any campaign that casts other productions negatively.
At least eight dancing productions of "The Nutcracker" are available around the region this year. And, the Children's Theater Association is producing "The Nutcracker: A Play," a dramatic production of the original E. T. A. Hoffman story upon which the ballet is based. (Dec. 12, 18 and 19, at the Baltimore Museum of Art; call 225-0052.)
But the producer of the Donetsk production defended the ads, and acknowledged they were targeted at the Moscow Ballet production.
"They're only negative in the sense that we do have a live orchestra," said Nick Litrenta of BACI Management. "I put up a competitive campaign. If you have a good company and it does a good 'Nutcracker,' I don't know that anybody will suffer."
Regarding the implication that seeing other "Nutcrackers" would "cheat" children of a better production, he contended, " 'The Nutcracker' is the introduction to the arts for most children . . . it's the only one that gives you all three" elements: live music, dance and theater.
However, Mr. Simon said, live music "doesn't necessarily mean it's going to be better. Believe it or not, there is some advantage in having a great symphony orchestra in a fine recording."
Mr. Litrenta also complained earlier ads for the Moscow Ballet referred to it as having "Stars From the Bolshoi," when none of the dancers in the troupe are currently connected to the famed Russian company.
In October, the Bolshoi objected to the use of its name and it was removed from subsequent publicity materials, including ads in The Sun.
Mr. Talmi says two principals of the Moscow Ballet, choreographer Stanislav Vlasov and ballerina Lilia Sabitova, have had past connections with the Bolshoi. He also expected two other dancers with Bolshoi credentials to be part of the troupe.
When he learned of the Bolshoi complaints and the fact those dancers did not come here, he changed the publicity.
He was not aware of questions raised last month about the immigration status of the Moscow Ballet dancers.
In a Nov. 18 letter to the investigative division of the INS in Philadelphia, Gary Lindsey, a San Francisco-based booking agent, suggested the dancers had not received the proper temporary worker visas. He said the American Guild of Musical Artists, a dancers union, had not issued its recommendation on the group's request to enter the United States, as required by federal law.
However, Mr. Lindsey this week said he had been given wrong information by an AGMA official, and conceded "they did get their correct visas."
But another booking agent, Jim Robb of the Performing Arts Societyof Philadelphia, who represents several members of the Donetsk Ballet, complained that the Moscow Ballet has questionable credentials in terms of international recognition.
"It looks more like a Las Vegas revue than a classical ballet from Russia," he said.
Sun dance reviewer J. L. Conklin found the Moscow troupe's costumes and production values weak, but praised the dancers as "what one could expect from the Russians, flashy and full of soul," and said the choreography improved the flow of the ballet.
Mr. Robb also contended the troupe's secondary billing as "State Ballet of Russia" is "a made up name."
Mr. Talmi of the Moscow production said he perceives a "lack of welcome" in the rival company's complaints. He said it threatens to undo "a goodwill endeavor to do a very deep job in the community to bring together two cultures."
He noted the Moscow group has worked for most of a year on the current "Nutcracker" production with the Children's Dance Division of Towson State University and with student choirs from a number of area schools. It has also produced a teachers guide about Russian culture for use in local schools, he said.