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The Nutcracker: is it still the 'cash-cow' it used to be?

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A recent review of the local company's Nutcracker referred to the ballet as the "cash-cow staple of every ballet company in the land". This would seem to be an unquestionable truism: Nutcracker has traditionally provided companies with the revenue to literally keep them solvent through the remainder of the season.

But in many communities outside the large metropolitan areas the offering of productions and events during the holiday season has increased markedly, meaning that Nutcracker now has to compete for its audiences with groups such as the Rockettes (yes, their Christmas show seems to be everywhere) and Cirque du Soleil in addition to the "Great Russian Nutcracker" and the usual array of nonprofessional, dance-school-related Nutcrackers, Christmas Carols, and the like.

Without real data in front of me it's difficult to do more than speculate on the reason(s) why, but it is clear that in several communities Nutcracker sales are down from last year. I wonder how much of the loss can be blamed on the economy, or whether competition from larger, spashier productions such as the Rockettes doesn't cause quite a drain on ticket sales. Tickets to Cirque du Soleil and the Rockettes were considerably more expensive than Nutcracker tickets, at least in Phoenix. I noticed a similar situation in Minneapolis and am curious to know whether this might be a trend of sorts, at least outside the larger cities. If so, it will be dangerous for companies to continue to unquestioningly rely on the Nutcracker as a "cash-cow".

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Thanks for that, Sonora -- all good points, I think. Two years ago, there were newspaper reports that Nutcracker revenues were down.

I think another factor to consider is that there are so many Nutcrackers. Twenty years ago (in any city), there might have been one professional company that drew both serious ballet lovers as well as those for whom going to the Nutcracker was a family tradition. Now there are dozens of smaller Nutcrackers, as every studio seems to have one. That, coupled with other holiday entertainment, just spreads the Christmas theater dollars too thin.

Also, I think "Nutcracker" turns off many dance lovers. I wrote in a Post review 15 years ago that "Nutcracker" had more in common with Holiday on Ice than it did with ballet, and I think that's more true today. A beautifully staged, well-cast and well-danced production will always be of interest to those who love ballet, but second, third, fourth to twelfth rate versions don't have enough interesting dancing in them to interest the contemporary audience.

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I think that Nutcracker isn't tapped out yet, but the time is coming when only the best productions will survive, even though a new potential audience is coming up in the form of children. It's starting to show a market saturation in some places, and in a few others, the signs of becoming a cliché. No amount of tinkering with the libretto or the action to make it "truer to Hoffman" (bleah!) or "relevant to our time" (bleah!) or even "make sense" (horrors!) can counteract this trend, in my opinion.

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Well, setting a ballet on its ear would be a real problem, as ballet is mostly designed to be done on the feet, and dragging it into the 21st century is just code for "make relevant to our time" (bleah!). Now, if ballet actually could zorch people back in time, we'd never have any problems in selling tickets! I'd take 1964.

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I just volunteered to answer phones and sell tickets for a small

regional dance company. My very limited poll based on who I talked to would indicate that the overwhelming audience were first or second time ballet goers. They wanted to take the kids for a Christmas treat, take the wife out for a night out of ballet, or more experienced retired folks who wished for a matinee.

More than one person said there weren't as many Nutcrackers to choose from this year. They didn't want to spend the money required of the top companies. Some traveled as much as 50 miles to come!

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Yes, referring back to what Alexandra said, it's certainly true that there are many more Nutcrackers, and that their numbers seem to grow exponentially. A recent article in the Tucson Weekly (Tucson, AZ 12-3-02) counted five local productions, one of them dubbed "A Southwest Nutcracker”, which is apparently “replete with dancing copper queens and coyotes” and in which “Hoffman’s European Clara becomes an Hispanic Maria”.

The same article strongly suggested that these local Nutcrackers were interchangeable with that of the state's professional company, even though the local troupes that offer them consist of students, augmented by one or two visiting dancers who dance the principal roles.

This brings me to a related problem: the difficulty many potential audience members have in distinguishing between non-professional and professional Nutcrackers (or between a professional ballet company and seasonal, pickup tours of the Rockettes, for that matter). I’m not suggesting that people are incapable of telling the difference, just that if they are uneducated about or unfamiliar with ballet, they may have very little information that would help them decide what performance of half a dozen to attend.

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