The Nutcracker season is upon us, that time of year when audiences everywhere stream into theaters large and small to experience the magic, wonder and joy of this classic holiday production. For ballet companies, The Nutcracker provides much-needed financial stability at the outset of their performance seasons, helping to sustain repertory well beyond the holidays. For dancers, The Nutcracker ensures all are cast, many in multiple roles; while some secure additional opportunities to take on extra work as guest artists with other companies. For audiences, The Nutcracker often represents a first-time encounter with ballet, opening the door to all this classical art form has to offer.
There are many different versions of The Nutcracker, but it all boils down to a two-part ballet that transports audiences from Act I’s traditional family gathering 'round the Christmas tree into a dream-time world of confections and delights that come to life in Act II. Marzipan, gingerbread, candy canes and hot chocolate are all personified and performed with great flair; and there’s even a sultry Arabian Coffee dance for all the daddies in the audience.
Part of what makes The Nutcracker so popular and accessible for audiences is that it is based on a story. Ballets usually fall into two camps: “story” and “plotless.” Story ballets follow a specific narrative from beginning to end; plotless works have stories to tell but are generally more abstract and open to interpretation. A parallel here can be made in the visual arts, comparing figurative/representational to modern/abstract works. The Nutcracker is pretty and pleasing -- a Renoir or Monet -- readily recognizable and easy on the eyes. Plotless works are more akin to the bifurcated blocks of hue in a Mark Rothko painting; a bright window of light in a James Turrell installation; or the densely layered abstraction of a Julie Mehretu canvas. For many balletomanes (people who are absolutely nuts about ballet), the latter realm -- modern and contemporary work tending toward abstraction -- is far more interesting on the stage. That said, The Nutcracker is hard to resist and rounds out every balletomane’s overall experience with classical dance, especially when entertaining children, grandchildren and out-of-town guests during the holidays.
Most major ballet companies anchor their season/s with The Nutcracker and add in a few more story ballets -- The Sleeping Beauty, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Coppélia, etc. -- to draw the audience to other repertory scheduled around these works that may be less familiar to the uninitiated. Story ballets drive audiences, but if The Nutcracker is really doing its job, it is also steering the public toward fuller participation in classical dance beyond the traditional story ballet. Ballet companies work very, very hard following the holidays to translate The Nutcracker audiences into ballet-goers who will want to see and experience other work -- modern ballets by master choreographers George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins; contemporary pieces by William Forsythe, Christopher Wheeldon and Alexei Ratmansky; the latest by Bay Area-based choreographers such as Alonzo King, Helgi Tomasson and Yuri Possokhov. The Nutcracker provides a level of comfort with an art form that is not part of most Americans’ upbringing and experience. Will audiences come back to the ballet after the holidays to see works that may not tell a traditional “story,” per se, but rather welcome multiple and ever-changing interpretations? That is the million dollar question.
What ballet companies do know is that “if we build it, they will come;” in short, The Nutcracker gets people into seats. The production is staged by companies of all sizes from coast to coast because it practically guarantees box office success and can help bolster overall financial position at the beginning of a season, making it possible to stage less well-known work throughout the rest of the year.
Dance/USA’s most recent holiday survey of member companies indicates that ticket sales from The Nutcracker and other holiday productions averaged just over 16% of a company’s total annual income, inclusive of all sources of support (grants, gifts, membership, sponsorships, tour fees, etc.), while representing nearly 50% of total gross income from all works being performed. The latter statistic is noteworthy, considering The Nutcracker often represents only a small percentage of the repertory performed throughout the year. In short, The Nutcracker pays the bills, helping companies to commission and stage other works, pay dancer and musician salaries and support educational/community outreach well beyond the holiday season.
For dancers, The Nutcracker is more often than not cited as their first and transformative experience in heading toward a career in dance. This is perhaps especially true for boys who -- unlike little girls fitted into leotards, ballet slippers and tutus almost as a rite of passage -- may not actually see or experience ballet until attending The Nutcracker. This is when they have their first “a-ha” moment, as the athleticism, musicality and explosive energy of ballet combine with the wonder and adventure in this classic holiday story to great effect. Either that or their sisters are taking ballet and somewhere along the line they find themselves drawn into a dance studio because boys are needed to fill male roles in productions precisely like The Nutcracker. Often this is the first ballet in which they will perform.
In preparation for The Nutcracker, dancers live, eat and breathe “Nuts” for weeks on end. Rehearsals involve many permutations and combinations of dancers, ballet masters/mistresses (those teaching the ballets) and studio space to work on each part and scene of the ballet in smaller sections before piecing it all together with lighting, sets/scenery and costumes. The performance schedule is also demanding, loaded with extra matinees and/or evening performances to accommodate the rush of audiences throughout the holiday season. This means dancers don’t get to spend very much time with loved ones during the holidays; a family gathering usually means parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins come together at the theater to see the dancer/s in their lives take to the stage in The Nutcracker. And take to the stage they will, as there are so many roles in the ballet that everyone is cast, often in multiple roles. The Nutcracker also offers opportunities to supplement dancers’ modest salaries with guest appearances in other companies’ productions.
With three levels of dancers in a company -- corps de ballet, soloists and principals -- this means that senior corps members or soloists who otherwise might wait years to perform choice principal roles can have a shot at Sugarplum Fairy, Dewdrop or Cavalier in another company, schedule permitting. In order to do so, dancers must seek permission from their home companies, which in turn must be amenable to building casts and rehearsal/performance schedules that allow for a few days between regularly scheduled parts for select dancers to appear as guest artists elsewhere. If this can be arranged, "guesting" benefits smaller companies grateful for the gravitas and/or star power these appearances afford, if only for a couple of special performances that can attract larger audiences. These dancers supplement their livelihoods for the season, boost the production value for the host company, and share their knowledge and experience with other dancers eager to learn from guest artists representing different perspectives and interpretations of roles. It’s a win-win-win.
Bay Area Nutcrackers
The Bay Area can take special pride in the fact that the first production of The Nutcracker to premiere in the U.S. was at the San Francisco Ballet in 1944, choreographed by Willam Christensen. The company has since unveiled several iterations of the production and its current Nutcracker, choreographed by Helgi Tomasson, has a very local flavor with scenes from San Francisco at the turn of the last century, including the Sutro Bath House, rows of Victorian homes, etc. If attending this version of The Nutcracker, you can check out casting a week in advance at sfballet.org; and be sure to keep your eyes open for role debuts by up and coming dancers. Role debuts offer an exciting opportunity to see new generations of dancers take it to the next level.
While San Francisco Ballet performs the largest and best-known production in the region, there are many other opportunities to experience this holiday classic performed by a range of Bay Area dancers -- from the professional and pre-professional to student dancers in children’s roles; sometimes a mix of all three, as it takes armies of dancers to stage this production. If you haven’t bought your tickets yet, it’s not too late! The following is just a small sampling of Nutcrackers and holiday dance productions in the Bay Area through the end of the month:
- San Francisco Ballet: Dec. 12-29 at the War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco; $29-$415; 415-865-2000; sfballet.org
- Ballet San Jose: Dec. 13-28 at the San Jose Center for the Performing Arts; $25-$110; 408-288-2800; balletsj.org
- Oakland Ballet Company: Dec. 20-21 at the Paramount Theatre, Oakland; $22-$70.50; 800-745-3000; oaklandballet.org
- Berkeley Ballet Theater: Dec. 12-14, 19-21 at the Julia Morgan Theater, Berkeley; $24-30; 510-830-9524; berkeleyballet.org
- Marin Ballet: Dec. 13 & 14 at the Marin Veterans’ Memorial Auditorium, San Rafael; $26-42; 415-473-6800; marinballet.org
Other Holiday Dance Productions
- ODC Dance’s The Velveteen Rabbit: through Dec. 14 at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco; $15-$75; 415-978-2787; odcdance.org
- Smuin Ballet’s The Christmas Ballet: through Dec. 27 in Walnut Creek, Carmel, Mountain View and San Francisco; ticket prices vary by venue; 415-912-1899; smuinballet.org