Fans of 'Nutcracker' are divided on holiday ballet without live music; Some return tickets; others stick by plans as strike hits 5th day


NEW YORK -- What could be more New York than the soaring strains of Tchaikovsky's "The Nutcracker," danced at Lincoln Center by the glittering New York City Ballet?

But as the ballet's 70-member orchestra entered the fifth day of its strike, and dancers prepared to pirouette to taped music, ballet fans were split over whether the delicate fable would spring to life without the musicians. Some lined up at the box office yesterday to return their tickets, while others insisted they would see the Sugar Plum Fairy and Mouse King no matter what.

Box office officials said that about 20 people asked for refunds for the matinee, which had been sold out before the strike.

"We live in a village, and when we come to a famous place like this, I want to see it the way it's supposed to be," said Karl Herfert from Austria, who with his wife, Eva, decided not to attend the ballet after seeing posted notices about the strike.

Scott Stephens, a New Yorker buying tickets for his wife, said, "I think it's fine to have taped music."

This is the first time that musicians have walked out of "The Nutcracker," which the City Ballet has performed annually since 1954.

A negotiating session between ballet company and musician representatives, which went late into Friday night, failed to produce an agreement. The musicians, represented by Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians, are seeking higher wages and benefits. Their principal concern, however, is to continue a tradition of elective attendance, by which they can skip a rehearsal or performance and forfeit their pay, if a substitute is available.

The ballet company has argued that orchestra members abuse the privilege, compromising continuity of rehearsals and performances.

On Friday, Bill Dennison, a union spokesman, said that the union had agreed to a final proposal that the musicians play through the holiday season as negotiations continued, but balked when the ballet company added the proviso that if negotiations were not concluded in time, the musicians would play through the spring.

The average salary of current orchestra members is $66,000 for 23 weeks of work, according to the ballet company, with more money for seniority and other factors. The union has disputed that figure, saying the basic pay is $35,000.

Laurence Fader, a spokesman for the orchestra members, said that the situation had escalated from a strike to a lockout. "We said yes, no strings attached," for going back to work, he said. "They said no, because we would not guarantee them the spring season."

Christopher Ramsey, a spokesman for the City Ballet, said, "We just can't be held hostage by threats of strike when we are trying to negotiate in good faith at the table."

To some, conflict and walkouts are quintessentially New York. But yesterday, "Nutcracker" fans debated whether they would get a better taste of the city's holiday season at, perhaps, Radio City Music Hall.

"We all voted to turn in our tickets and do something that is more New York," said Melissa Vickers from Terre Haute, Ind., who was at the New York State Theater's box office yesterday with her mother and her aunts. "I've seen one with recorded music," she added, and the experience was not inspiring.

Donald Reichel, on vacation from Amsterdam, Holland, said that despite the strike, "I think we have to buy tickets. It's really famous."

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