Posted by Rebecca King on 11.30.2011
The other day I found a fascinating article from “D Magazine” out of Dallas. The author, Peter Simek, posed an interesting question with the title: Is the Nutcracker Saving Ballet, Or Killing It? Mr. Simek quotes Ben Stevenson, Artistic Director of Texas Ballet Theater, as he describes the financial reasons for companies’ continuing to put on productions of The Nutcracker year after year. Simek says, “a company’s season will make or break based on The Nutcracker.” American companies all count on the fact that this traditional holiday show will pack the house and rake in the money.
So would companies continue to put Nutcracker productions on stage if it were not such a crowd pleaser? As Mr. Stevenson says in Simek’s article “if he didn’t depend on the revenue from the ballet, he is not sure he would produce it every year.” This ballet is an American tradition and everyone wants to see it.
As Mr. Simek notes, this ballet has an educational value that is very important to our art form. It gives young children the opportunity to perform, older students a chance to work with a company, and a wide range of roles for company members from the youngest apprentice to the most experienced Principal. Very few other ballets allow for this kind of participation.
All that being said, Mr. Simek did not answer the question he set out to answer with the article’s title; perhaps because it is impossible to answer. However, I would like to add a couple other question to the mix.
If it is true that companies cannot survive without The Nutcracker and it is a production that brings in new audience members, why do we rarely see those new audience members return? If they were to come back to the ballet after enjoying their Nutcracker experience, we would see ticket sales numbers rise more and more after each Nutcracker season. But they aren’t; these people are not coming back.
As a ballet dancer, when you meet someone on the street and explain to them what you do for a living, 9 times out of 10 that person will tell you they have attended The Nutcracker when they were a child. As a ballet dancer, 10 times out of 10 you will ask them if they ever returned to the ballet again. The answer is most always a “no.”
How can ballet companies get Nutcracker audience members to come back during the regular season? In America we do not put an emphasis on Arts education. We instead allow the youths of this great nation to be glued to the television set and go to the movies with their friends instead of attending a live theater production. When Miami City Ballet performed in Paris, young Parisians clamored to get tickets, but not because they were familiar with the works we were doing. In fact, it was quite the opposite. These young adults attended because they enjoy art and wanted to see something new and exciting. In America we seem to have lost the ability to interest the younger generations in our art form.
Perhaps this loss of new Nutcracker generated audience members has something to do with the fact that doing the same production of The Nutcracker year after year gets repetitive for the community. What about doing a brand-new multi-million dollar production of The Nutcracker like San Francisco Ballet did a few years back? The press and excitement over this new Helgi Tomasson production spread quickly across Northern California in the months leading up to the opening. Everyone was clamoring for tickets that year. I wonder if now, after some time has passed, if their ticket sales still remain higher than before the new production’s debut. If I had to guess, I would say probably not.
If people don’t seem to care about seeing anything new, how will our art form evolve? If the audience is begging for the same old same old, our world will remain stuck in the 19th Century. The classics such as Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty launched ballet into the public’s eye, Balanchine revolutionized it, and now we must again catch the public’s attention. New choreographers and new works are surficing all over the world all the time. Why do these events not generate as much attention as The Nutcracker? New works are our future classics.
The Nutcracker is not saving the ballet. Financially it may be a huge help in sustaining companies across the country, but to me, “saving ballet” would be to ensure it’s future fan base. The Nutcracker is not bringing enough returning audience members throughout the regular season to be considered a savior. Nor is The Nutcracker killing ballet. All companies dance many other programs each season, often bringing new and exciting things into the dance world. Is Nutcracker allowing the art form to remain stagnant? Perhaps. But I suppose that is open to interpretation.
In the mean time, companies across the country will continue to honor the age old tradition of The Nutcracker this holiday season and for many to come: delighting young girls in their Christmas dresses and filling the communities with visions of Sugar Plums dancing in their heads.