America is Nutcracker obsessed. The ballet, composed by one Russian (Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky) and most famously choreographed by another (George Balanchine) has become an American institution. If you travel to any city in the United States at some time between mid-November and New Years Eve, you will undoubtedly have the opportunity to catch a performance of The Nutcracker. In fact, the New York Times estimated that of all the performances of The Nutcracker that happen around the world each year, half of them occur in the United States. The Nutcracker has such a stranglehold on American ballet that the existence of countless ballet companies depends on how well tickets to the holiday favorite sell.
“I call it a bread and butter ballet,” says Ben Stevensen, artistic director of Texas Ballet Theater.
On the one hand, relying on tried-and-true material to keep the doors open doesn’t differentiate ballet companies from many other performing arts groups. The Dallas Opera needs to make sure each season offers La Traviata, Madame Butterfly, or some other favorite by Puccini, Verdi, or Mozart. The Dallas Symphony Orchestra couldn’t get by without a Beethoven program each year. Even the Dallas Theater Center opens each season with Shakespeare, in part because of tradition but also because Shakespeare appeals to a broader audience than that interested in, say, Neil LaBute.
But in ballet, a company’s season will make or break based on The Nutcracker – and only The Nutcracker. Even substituting another of Tchaikovsky’s classic ballets – Swan Lake or Sleeping Beauty – would be suicide. Accordingly, ballet companies harbor mixed feelings about the perennial favorite.
“Everyone groans when The Nutcracker comes around,” Stevenson says, adding that if he didn’t depend on the revenue from the ballet, he’s not sure if he would produce it every year. It’s not that Stevenson doesn’t like Tchaikovsky’s work. It’s that overperformance can cheapen a work and deafen its impact on an audience. “I’m not against the work; it is one of the great scores,” he says. “But if we didn’t do The Nutcracker, in 20 years it would become an adventure again.”
So why can’t ballet companies distance themselves from the work? For one thing, says Chung-Lin Tseng, artistic director of Fort Worth’s Ballet Frontier of Texas, for most people The Nutcracker is not about ballet, it’s about tradition.
“The Nutcracker has become a major ballet to present during Christmas time,” Tseng says. Tseng first became familiar with the American demand for the ballet after he moved from his native Taiwanto join an American ballet company in 1998. “The first year I came I was totally overloaded,” Tseng says of the number of performances of The Nutcracker he had to dance inAmerica. “I was really surprised.”
The seasonal content is just part of the formula, Tseng says. The ballet itself is safe and easy, digestible and familiar. It is a relatively short work, and it features many set and thematic changes, as the plot circulates through a series of dances. And particularly in the ballet’s second act, each of the dances lasts only a few minutes.
“For example, in Swan Lake one scene lasts for 20 minutes” Tseng says. “In The Nutcracker, you have many different subjects, and not too long, a minute or two.”
Those numerous dance scenes also add another key ingredient to The Nutcrackers’ success: a variety of roles for dancers. The Nutcracker is stacked with roles for young dancers, midcareer dancers, and dancers at the top of their game. That makes it ideal for a company to use to train its students, as stand-out talents make their way up the ranks of the ballet with each successive year.
The educative role of The Nutcracker also highlights how most Americans come into contact with the art form: through children’s dance classes. For many middle class American families, while boys are funneled into a variety of sports, girls often take ballet. And as a sport, The Nutcracker offers the perfect game. It has a large team, meaning few cuts, and everyone gets to run with the ball for a few moments, no matter how minor the role. Stevensen says he once saw a Nutcracker with as many as 200 children onstage at one time. Key for ballet companies, all those young dancers-in-training translate into parents, grandparents, and siblings buying tickets.
“There are some companies that can make $5 million doing a Nutcracker,” Stevenson said. “It can mean a lot.”
For most ballet companies, The Nutcracker accounts for upwards of half their budget for a given season. But is The Nutcracker hiding the fact that there really isn’t an audience for ballet as an art, because ballet “the sport” packs the theater with proud parents? Stevenson doesn’t think so. There are other ballets that are well known and can bring out an audience – Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella – even if their popularity still can’t touch The Nutcracker’s. The ballet about the little girl and soldier-suitor is a phenomenon unto itself, he says, and though it may be safe and it may be tired, dance companies would be foolish to mess with a formula that works.
“I think business today – not just ballet – is about trying to survive and trying to keep dancers with the paycheck,” he said. “Particularly in today’s economy, The Nutcracker is more important than it has ever been.”
Image: Natalie Böck dances the Sugar Plum Fairy (via).