Nutcracker’s Contribution To The Art Form

Posted by 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.

 

What do you think? Do you think The Nutcracker is saving ballet, or killing it? What has your experience been with your local production? Join the conversation!

15 Comments

  1. Dear R.—I’ve known several Ballerinas who told me that they chose their profession precisely because their parents took them to a Nutcracker production when they were children. So, apperently, the piece has a history of inspiring future practitioners of the Art.
    It is probably true that many Nutcracker audiences are composed of people who would otherwise never even think of attending a Ballet performance. I know a number of people who have experienced the Art for the first time because of it, and some, indeed, seek to extend their exposure to it because they have seen the Classic. —Yet, it is also probably true that Ballet afficionados stay away from it because it has become such a Holiday cliche. The porblem of creating future audience is one that concerns Classical Music, and other Fine Arts, and it is my belief that many people hold misconceptions about Ballet that can only be overcome with exposure to it. –I know that I had no knowledge or desire to see Ballet till 1992 when I first saw the Bolshoi—It was a revelation. Perhaps, others will experience such revelations and become passsionate fans of an Art which, because of false notions, is intimidating till its witnessed.—It’s as complicatede subject and I’ve gone on and on.–Sorry,—Richard

  2. This is the progression that turned me into a raving ballet fan. Stephen Hanna in Billy Elliot–more please. I was headed to San Francisco for Christmas, so I bought a ticket to their Nutcracker. Wow, wow, wow. Although I knew it probably wouldn’t turn out to be my all time favorite, it introduced me to full length story ballet. Then I bought a ticket to ABT Swan Lake in Chicago and I’ve been a maniac ever since. Season subscriber to Joffrey, mini seasons at ABT and NYC Ballet, Miami City Ballet. Thank you, Stephen Hanna and San Francisco Nutcracker!

    • Suzanne-

      That is so wonderful to hear that the Nutcracker touched your life like that. Just out of curiosity, did you see SFB’s newest production?

      Knowing that the Nutcracker can bring ballet into even just one person’s life like it has for you, makes it worth it. We are so glad to have you as a ballet fan!

      Thanks for the comment.

      • Not quite sure what you mean by newest; I saw it in 2009 and 2010. This year, although I’m going to San Fran for Christmas again, I’m going to see the Joffrey Nut.

        • Helgi’s production. If you saw it that recently, it is definitely the same production I am talking about. I am so glad you will be seeing it again!

  3. My daughter dreamed of performing in Nutcracker at 5, did her first one at 6, and could not say no to her 13th this year, though it means giving up a precious week of down time (MCB School is intense!) Every one of her Nutcrackers has given her the amazing learning opportunity of sharing the stage with professional guest artists. Without exception, those professionals have been warm and generous, not to mention kind and patient with the young performers. There’s no doubt in my mind that Nutcracker plays a huge role in inspiring and encouraging young dancers.

    • Terri-

      I agree and definitely felt that way when I was in the school. It really is a unique opportunity to get kids involved in ballet!

      Thanks for the comment.

  4. BTW, NYCB essentially doubles their ticket prices for the Nut run. I usually go anyway but this year think I’ll take advantage of the live stream & PBS broadcast & forsake choosing my ideal cast. That way, more $ left to see Ratmansky’s Nut for ABT.
    Also while Nutcracker might help companies financially, the runs are too long! Shoul be a max of 3 weeks (I think NYCB’s is 5)

    • Lisa-

      I have heard about NYCB upping ticket prices. I know a lot of people are not to happy about that. I would be very interested to hear how Ratmansky’s Nutcracker is! I agree that 3 weeks of Nutcracker would be more than enough. We are very lucky here that we do not go past Christmas Eve. In NYCB they go into the new year. That is a lot!!!

      Thanks for your comment!

  5. If Nutcracker can bring in enough money for a company to commission new choreography or expand their repertoire, I’d say it is “helping” but not saving ballet. Bringing down ticket prices and using media (like the recent live relays, Ballet in Cinema) may help expose viewers who are more likely to return to the theatre for a live performance. But good choreography and good dancing will draw a crowd in large cities. The Alvin Ailey 5 week season that just started, always plays to a packed theatre (sans Nutcracker). Same with Paul Taylor and previously Merce Cunningham. Hopefully, new ballet choreography will get consistently better and draw in new audiences who want to avoid the 19th c classics but like narrative ballet (which leaves out most Balanchine & Robbins).

  6. Great post!

    In my new book, “Where Snowflakes Dance and Swear: Inside the Land of Ballet” I observe that “To lure crowds, ballet relies squarely on its tradition—-mainly the Big Three Tchaikovsky tutu extravaganzas Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty and, of course, The Nutcracker, effectively marketed by perennially cash-starved companies large and small as The Greatest Ballet on Earth. The Nutcracker does pay the bills, but it has the perverse effect of skewing outsiders’ view of the art to the notion that all ballets must involve tutus, regal poses, and nineteenth-century music. It’s as if baseball played its games between Memorial Day and the Fourth of July by quaint 1800s rules and customs—-dead ball, flat-sided bat, pitcher’s mound close to the plate, fielders wearing what look like gardening gloves—-and sold those games out, then had trouble getting fans to turn out the rest of the year for games played under modern conditions.”

    There’s lots more about The Nutcracker in the book, from dancers who flatly say “We hate it” to a choreographer (Jean-Christophe Maillot) who talks about turning down an offer of an artistic director’s job in Boston because he couldn’t stand the thought of having to churn out dozens of Nutcracker performances year after year.

    It’s a tough call: I think the tradition is great, and it’s wonderful for kids. The problem is that most adults learn that The Nutcracker Is Ballet and The Ballet Is The Nutcracker, and, like the critics at the original Russian production, don’t find much reason to return to see more of the same.

    But in the US and Canada (as nowhere else, evidently), it does float the ballet boat. As you noticed in Europe, you see many more young people at cultural events; I think that’s in part because one of the many ways Europe subsidizes the arts is to offer cheap tickets to young audiences and hooks ’em young to the real thing.

    But as I also point out in the book, there’s a chance–not huge, but a chance–that just as broadcasting baseball games on TV brought huge new audiences to the live events, the increasing visibility of dance on the Web may just do the trick for ballet. Remember, permanent ballet companies in the US are a relatively new phenomenon. You’re dancing for one, and even the New York City Ballet goes back only to 1948. Developing an audience for culture takes time.

    You can read more of my musings at the book’s Web site,
    http://wheresnowflakesdanceandswear.com

    –or, of course, in the book itself!

    • Stephen-

      Thank you so much for writing in! I have heard about your book and am looking forward to ordering it to Amazon this weekend!

      You bring up an interesting point: “The Nutcracker Is Ballet and The Ballet Is The Nutcracker.” This ballet must not be grasping enough to encourage new audience members to return! As far as ballet on TV, we were recently on PBS. After the premier, all the dancers heard from friends that we haven’t talked to in years after they watched the performance. These are people who probably had only gone to the Nutcracker prior to watching our special, and they were blown away! It was so great to see something different reaching out to our friends who are unfamiliar with ballet.

      Thanks again for your comment!

      • PBS used to do a lot more of this sort of cultural programming. And, though you’re much too young to remember, so did the three commercial networks. The Balanchine Nut was first performed in February [!] 1954, but the US Nutcracker phenomenon owes a huge debt to national CBS broadcasts of the Mr. B. version on Christmas night 1957 and 1958.

        Thanks for ordering the book. I’d love to hear your thoughts about it.

  7. Rebecca

    This is a very interesting post especially for this time of year! You have made me think about the various Nutcrackers that I have attended over the years. Some of my favorite shows have been the ones that local schools have done with professional dancers as guests. I really enjoy seeing young dancers on stage and as you have noted the Nutcracker can showcase dancers of many ages. I have attended schools that have tap dancers and tumbling dancers, not my favorite, and schools that have young dancers doing ballet at their appropriate level. I prefer the more traditional preference and one that adheres to the traditional story. Having said that, I always want to see a good Sugar Plum Pas de Deux.

    I hope some to hear in this forum how about this experience from the dancer perspective. Does having the opportunity to perform motivate student dancers to continue with ballet? How do the professional dancers view their role in these student performances?

    I am looking forward to seeing my annual performance this weekend!

    Lucille

    • Lucille-

      I prefer the traditional shows too! But it is nice that those other shows allow children to be a part of the Nutcracker.

      Thanks for the comment!

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