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September 21, 1986|LEWIS SEGAL | Lewis Segal is a Times staff writer. FO and FO and FO and FO

When Mikhail Baryshnikov first visited the Orange County Performing Arts Center last December, his public enthusiasm for the theater complex--especially his excitement over its "character, intimacy, comfort and promise"--seemed so extravagant that even he became amused by his reaction.

"I sound like a secretary of state," he joked, and quickly exchanged his "Orange County, here we come" rhetoric for a more thoughtful appraisal of how the center would meet the needs of his American Ballet Theatre production of "The Nutcracker," which will be presented this Christmas season.

In particular, he praised the design of the auditorium and the spread-out orchestra pit for bringing the audience and the stage in close proximity, and he also noted the number of rehearsal studios suitable for ballet.

His initial appraisal has remained remarkably unchanged. Baryshnikov may no longer speak of the center as "a paradise," but his recent statements on the subject reflect the same appreciation for the attempt to make the facility an exemplary home for ballet.

"I think an 'ideal' theater is one that combines many elements: an intimate relationship with the dancer to the audience, a comfortable backstage area, good rehearsal rooms," he said in New York.

"When I toured the Orange County Performing Arts Center, it seemed a great space--a theater designed with sensitivity.

"The location is important, too. Orange County is such a big place that because the theater is so central, I think we will be able to attract people from all over. Maybe some for the first time.

"Certainly we are looking forward to a long relationship in Orange County, and we hope in the future to bring our repertory performances to the audiences there. It is a terrific theater, and I hope we can spend some time there."

All along, however, Baryshnikov has seemed considerably less optimistic about actually dancing in Orange County.

At the end of 1985, he mentioned that he was not performing in the then-current Los Angeles "Nutcracker" season because of a recurring knee injury. "If I am recovered enough next year," he said, "there is a possibility that I will come and dance here (in Orange County)."

Months later, after his 38th birthday, and before an ABT season in which his condition reportedly led him to drop the ballet "Requiem" and a solo in "Swan Lake" (Act II) from his performance schedule in several cities, he spoke about a number of career options--including retirement.

"I'm moving pretty well now," he said, "but I'm listening to my knee, what my knee says to me.

"I have a couple of friends who will say, 'Maybe it's enough,' if I don't dance really well. And then I'll stop." He didn't stop, of course, but he has yet to announce a decision about dancing in 1986 performances of "The Nutcracker" anywhere .

Created 10 years ago, Baryshnikov's "Nutcracker" represented his first choreographic effort. Like many creative firsts, it may well be stronger in overall concept than in quality--or evenness--of execution.

Indeed, Baryshnikov has acknowledged that his interest (and the innovations) in the project were primarily dramatic--conceptual rather than choreographic. In his words, " 'The Nutcracker' was more of an experiment as a director for me.

"I paid tribute in it to my predecessors; the interpretation was mine. The very idea of the construction of a ballet interested me. I didn't even consider absolutely new choreography for this music, undoubtedly the most complicated in ballet."

Though the strong dramatic focus of Baryshnikov's "Nutcracker" makes it quite unlike traditional stagings, it has arguably become the most familiar version of the ballet in America--not so much due to stage performances as to the recurrent telecasts of its 1977 TV adaptation (which is also marketed as a commercial videocassette).

Baryshnikov's approach has been to use a cast of adult dancers in place of real children, and through them find deeper emotional contexts for the original situations of the ballet. Thus the family Christmas party becomes a rite of passage for young Clara, taking her from the child's world of puppets and dolls into adolescent dreams of romantic intimacy.

The guests at the party become transformed in Clara's nightmare to warring mice or soldiers. Even the last-act divertissements become a dream-idealization of the first-act party, with Clara presiding over the festivities in the role usually assumed by the Sugar Plum Fairy in other stagings.

Up to the last few moments, this "Nutcracker" manages to preserve the theatrical structure and major relationships of the ballet's 1892 scenario while achieving a new thematic unity. However, it then invites controversy by securing that unity at the expense of the work's inherent musical and expressive values.

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