LEFT: The Nutcracker, performed by the New York City Ballet; RIGHT: Alexandra Lebenthal with daughters Charlotte and Eleanor.

ONE OF MY ABSOLUTE FAVORITE EVENTS of the holiday season is George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker, presented by the New York City Ballet (NYCB) and featuring Balanchine’s timeless choreography and Tchaikovsky’s legendary score.

The regal elegance of the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier, the astonishing leaps of the Candy Canes, and the sublime “Waltz of the Flowers” are always exhilarating. I’m mesmerized from the opening party scene straight through to the appearance of the giant Christmas tree and the flying sleigh at the end.

But my favorite cast members have always been the children, all students of the School of American Ballet (SAB), the ballet’s official academy. Since becoming a member of the SAB’s board of directors four years ago, I’ve grown that much more devoted to the little angels, soldiers, and polichinelles. Ranging in age from eight to 13, the 100-plus students devote their (and their families’) evenings and weekends in October and November to rehearsals with the children’s ballet mistress Garielle Whittle. The meticulous preparation is apparent during the 46 performances given at Lincoln Center from Thanksgiving weekend through early January.

The annual Nutcracker Family Benefit, hosted by the NYCB and the SAB, is the highlight of the season for so many in the city, including my family and me. This year I’m fortunate enough to be an event cochair alongside Kristin Kennedy Clark and Sharon Jacob.

The benefit begins with a matinee performance of The Nutcracker, which sets the tone for a spirited, sugar-filled afterparty on the theater’s promenade. The 800 benefit guests (at least half of whom are under the age of 10) dine on finger sandwiches and holiday treats as they collect autographs from cast members, pose for photos with Santa, and dance to holiday music. It’s complete, wonderful bedlam! My girls, Charlotte and Eleanor, have become regulars, and we go home exhausted but thrilled that we were part of this special event.

What the girls don’t realize is how important the benefit is for the company’s education programs and the school’s scholarship program. The generosity of the families who attend the event allows the NYCB to expose thousands of local children to the ballet, and enables the SAB to fund scholarships so that talented youngsters— regardless of their financial means—can train at the school.

There’s no doubt that this is a tough time for many, but I promise you that the Nutcracker Family Benefit will bring joy to all who attend. I can’t think of a better holiday gift.

The Nutcracker Family Benefit, hosted by the School of American Ballet and the New York City Ballet, takes place Saturday, December 13, 2008 at the David H. Koch Theater. For tickets or more information, call 212-769-6610 or visit sab.org.

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