As the performing arts sector struggles to find its way back into the spotlight from the shadow of canceled shows, closed theatres and costly safety precautions, the ballet world is finally able to turn back to its guaranteed money-maker this holiday season: “The Nutcracker.”
The holiday staple attracts almost as many audience members as the rest of the year's shows combined, raking in a hefty portion of annual ticket revenue. The New York City Ballet, one of the top ballet companies in the world, makes about 45% of its annual ticket sales from its roughly five-week run of “The Nutcracker.”
This level of public engagement is essential for an industry that, like other performing arts, lost nearly all its typical revenue opportunities during the coronavirus pandemic. In the United States, nonprofit arts and culture organizations lost an estimated $18 billion due to the pandemic as of July 2021, according to Americans For The Arts.
“The pandemic has been completely devastating for the performing arts sector as a whole,” said Kellee Edusei, who is the Executive Director of Dance/USA which she describes as a service organization for dance. “Specifically in dance, we saw budgets were just slashed.”
A majority of dance companies surveyed by Dance/USA reported losing ticket sales compared to the year before, with 44 of the companies saying they had lost an average 74%. Virtual productions more than tripled. During the winter of 2020, most professional ballet companies bypassed their long-standing tradition of performing “The Nutcracker” and instead streamed recordings of past Nutcracker performances.
The slew of canceled shows affected surrounding local economies as well.
“It’s so important for the city to have these annual productions that bring tourists into the city, that bring people from the whole tri-state area,” said Jonathan Stafford, Artistic Director of New York City Ballet. “It’s important for the hotels, for the restaurants, for the taxi drivers. It brings life back to the city.”
“What is downtown?” said Edusei, who lives in Chicago. “What is driving tourists to this city? It’s the museums, it’s the dance performances that are happening all around town. It is the arts and culture sector. That’s what’s driving the tourism in a lot of major cities.”
During the pandemic, Dance/USA worked alongside other nonprofit arts organizations to ensure the arts were accounted for in the financial aid packages introduced during the pandemic. The Save Our Stages Act was passed in December 2020 and provides $15 billion to aid the performing arts sector.
“The arts are essential and I think the legislators realized the economic engine and driving force that the performing arts has in communities,” Edusei said.
The New York City Ballet stepped back onto the stage this fall after opting to stream a 2019 recording of “The Nutcracker” last year. The live show marks a return to the 66-year-old tradition of performing “The Nutcracker” for New Yorkers and tourists alike.
“For us to bring Nutcracker back, it was worth every bit of work we had to do,” Stafford said. “It was worth all the extra hours of figuring out the COVID protocols in order for us to bring this gift back to the city and to get our dancers back on stage.”
The show provides financial security to many professional ballet companies, allowing them to take artistic risks throughout the rest of the year.
“Nutcracker does fill a chunk of our making ends meet in terms of our operating budget,” Stafford said. “And it does allow us to be more creative. It allows us to take chances. It allows us to produce the number of new works that we do.”
The New York City Ballet and its founder, Russian-born choreographer George Balanchine, are largely responsible for “The Nutcracker’s” popularity, benefiting dance companies across the country and further afield. NYCB still performs Balanchine’s original choreography, which premiered in 1954.
Based on a story written by E.T.A. Hoffmann in 1816, “Nußknacker und Mausekönig” (The Nutcracker and the Mouse King), the ballet was first performed in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1892. Created by choreographers Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov in collaboration with composer Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, it was poorly received and did not take off at first. Critics at the time even called it “an insult” to Russia’s Imperial Theatres and “death for the company,” wrote Jennifer Homans in her book “Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet.”
Various choreographers tried their hand at reviving the ballet, which tells the story of Clara, a girl who travels on Christmas Eve to the Land of Sweets with her Nutcracker prince. But it wasn’t until 1954 when George Balanchine choreographed his own version for the New York City Ballet that it really took hold.
The 1954 premiere opened in February and wasn’t then associated with the holidays, although the first act of the ballet takes place at a Christmas party. So what made the ballet such a success that the New York City Ballet has performed it every Christmas since?
One likely answer: children. Balanchine’s Nutcracker was the first production to include young students from his School of American Ballet and to this day involves more children than any other NYCB production. In a typical year (in which kids are vaccinated), the New York City Ballet has 126 children, ages 8 to 12, perform in two alternating casts.
Balanchine, who as a child back in Russia hated ballet class until he had the chance to perform on stage in “The Sleeping Beauty,” wanted to give children performance opportunities so they could understand what they were working toward in the ballet classroom.
“When a kid has the experience of performing on stage, that is 100% different than being in a classroom doing exercises,” said Dena Abergel, Children’s Repertory Director at School of American Ballet and former professional dancer with NYCB. “All the wonder and magic of being on stage and dancing to live music and putting on costumes and being with people you look up to on the same stage, it’s amazing.”
Sixty-seven years ago, this was exactly the experience of Kay Mazzo, 75, who performed in the first tour of Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker” as an 8-year-old when it came to Chicago in 1954. She remembers getting to watch from the wings as the professional dancers she had previously only read about performed on stage.
“I saw these women who were just so beautiful on stage, and then when they came off stage, they were still pretty glamorous and I said to my mom, ‘That’s what I want to be,’” Mazzo said.
At age 16, she joined the New York City Ballet, where she had a 20-year career as a professional dancer. “It all started with ‘The Nutcracker’!” Mazzo said.
Beyond dazzling young dancers with bright lights and costumes, Balanchine wanted to include children in the ballet to engage his audience as well. “The Nutcracker” story is told from a child’s perspective and Balanchine wanted real children to play the younger characters.
“He was so brilliant in his understanding of the theatre, what it looks like from the audience when you have small children on the stage,” Abergel said. “It’s so heart-warming and touching for an audience member ... He just knew.”
Much of Balanchine’s life work was directed toward making ballet popular in the United States. And he saw children as the key to that endeavor: get children engaged with the art and it involves their whole families, train them from a young age and you eventually have dancers to hire for your company. To that end, he founded the School of American Ballet in New York City in 1934 and included the students in professional productions like “The Nutcracker.”
“It’s the best gateway,” Stafford said of “The Nutcracker.” “It leads to more support down the road. When kids see the production, they grow up and put their kids in ballet because they have this appreciation for ballet simply by going to see ‘The Nutcracker’ once a year.”
Balanchine designed the roles so that student dancers could participate in the production year after year, starting typically from age 8 until they were 12 years old. As they got older and their technique improved, there was a role that would match the level of their ballet training.
“It does increase in its challenge but appropriately, and that’s the whole point,” Abergel said. “So that by the time you’re done with Nutcracker, you know how to count music, you know how to stay in formations, you know how to do steps in a group and you know how to do challenging steps on stage with adult dancers.”
“By the end of a child going through the roles of ‘The Nutcracker’, they’ve learned everything they need to do.”
Teaching two dozen 8- and 9-year-olds to count music and keep in formation is usually one of the more challenging aspects of Abergel’s job. But this year, she said the biggest challenge was logistics. That’s because, this year, NYCB isn’t including 8- or 9-year-olds at all.
Rehearsals typically start late summer or early fall, well before vaccines were made available for children in early November. To adjust, some professional productions, including those of NYCB and Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet only cast vaccinated children 12 and older. Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle is keeping with their typical age range of 9 to 12 year olds but has outfitted each young dancer with a facemask that matches their costume.
For the first time, this year’s New York City Ballet cast of ‘children’ ranges from 12 to 16. Their costume department remade all of the costumes to accommodate the taller dancers, designing them to be easily downsized next year when the company expects to return to the younger cast.
Stafford said ticket sales are on a par with past non-pandemic years despite the requirements that everyone in the audience either be fully vaccinated or provide proof of a negative COVID test within 72 hours of the performance.
One pandemic pattern that hasn’t totally disappeared is streaming. New York City Ballet and others are offering their performances through streaming platforms like Marquee TV for those who can’t make it to the theatre in person. However, Edusei said she hasn’t seen a huge interest in maintaining streaming services among the dance industry as a whole.
“I do not think that it is of a huge interest and/or desired investment,” Edusei said.
Between remaking costumes, recruiting vaccinated teenage dancers from across New York City and finding new revenue opportunities through streaming, the pandemic has forced all performing arts organizations to get creative in a different way than they might be used to.
Edusei said a dance company’s sustainability is not just about finances but also successfully supporting its people.
“It came in the form of very painful lessons learned but I think there are some companies that are really digging deep and re-centering their work on their values and their mission,” Edusei said. “How do we adapt and stay flexible in all kinds of moments?”
With the Omicron variant rapidly spreading, Stafford is staying adaptable. “This virus, as we see, is ever-evolving,” Stafford said. “It keeps us on our toes.”
U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis; Dance/USA member survey data; New York City Ballet; “Apollo’s Angels” by Jennifer Homans
Julia Wolfe, Jon McClure and Rosalba O’Brien
Additional production work by
Julia Wolfe, Travis Hartman and Chris Canipe