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Plum Tired

Crowds love it. Ballet companies depend on it. But what happens when there are too many Nutcrackers? 

Saturday Night
Shannon Rupp

 

When John Alleyne took the helm at Ballet British Columbia (BBC) in 1992, he envisaged an innovative company that went beyond tutus and frou-frou. He promised a “contemporary classical” repertoire that showcased the world’s finest new choreographers and twentieth century masters -- and absolutely no Nutcracker. It’s absence was to be the symbol distinguishing BBC from more conventional troupes.

Fast forward eight years and, this month, Alleyne and the BBC are hopping onto The Nutcracker’s magic sleigh. BBC is joining forces with Alberta Ballet to present a re-choreographed version the saccharine story in the spirit of the 1892 original. Alberta Ballet’s artistic director, Mikko Nissinen, feels his emphasis on returning to the ballet’s origins is part of what allayed Alleyne’s concerns about the project. Alleyne himself declined to comment on his reversal.

 He shouldn’t be embarrassed by the flip-flop. Nutcrackers are as necessary to ballet as Boxing “week” sales are to retailers. The annual productions, with their familiar characters and spectacular sets, are designed to attract hordes of ballet neophytes in order to subsidize riskier, more challenging dance for the rest of the season. In North America, this Faustian bargain has worked splendidly since New York City Ballet’s George Balanchine mounted his Nutcracker in 1954, establishing it as an annual yuletide treat. BBC’s executive director, Kevin Myers, is candid about the Sugar Plum Fairy’s status as a cash cow.  “In addition to our creative motivations, we needed to get involved in The Nutcracker because of  the potential revenue. And it builds audiences.”

 What directors and choreographers don’t like to admit is that the dance in a Nutcracker is, by necessity, the least challenging in any company’s repertoire – it has to be so dancers can perform them, sometimes twice daily, for weeks, or even months, without risking injuries. Which means that Nutcrackers are good business, but often very bad dance

The tradeoff has traditionally been worthwhile, but with more and more touring companies and local troupes competing for audiences, the Nutcracker market is increasingly crowded. Take the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. The Nutcracker is so important to the RWB’s fiscal health that last year the cash-strapped company replaced its birthday party version -- elegantly choreographed by a major modern talent, John Neumeier -- in favour of a conventional Christmas story with $1 million worth of lavish trim. Critics cursed the clumsy choreography, but it proved no barrier to getting bums in seats. In Winnipeg alone it did $500,000 worth of box office, more than tripling the previous version’s $160,000 in ticket sales. The RWB also played five shows in Alberta taking in a further $425,000. (The BBC’s decision to mount its own Nutcracker was prompted in part because the company hated to see all that money leave town with touring shows.)

This year, however, the RWB is having troubling finding enough bookings to make its investment pay. The RWB extravaganza was seen in only two cities outside Winnipeg -- Regina and Saskatoon -- because of all the other Nutcrackers jockeying for stage time.

In Canada, Ottawa’s National Arts Centre rotates the “big three” companies – the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, the National Ballet of Canada, and Les Grands Ballets Canadiens -- across its stage. (This year the NAC presented Les Grands Ballets Canadiens’ version, which in addition to claiming the Montreal market, also tours to St. Louis, Missouri.)

 Meanwhile mid-size and small markets are already served by boutique companies such as Toronto’s fourteen-member Ballet Jorgen, which supports a season of original works with its “chamber ballet” version of The Nutcracker that tours Ontario and several U.S. states. Out west, BBC united with Alberta Ballet so that, combined, the two could rival the RWB and claim the lucrative Vancouver market, as well as Calgary, Edmonton, and Spokane, Washington. In the fairy-eat-fairy world of Christmas dance, the Alberta Ballet is also angling for a three-year Anchorage, Alaska contract – currently held but Utah’s Ballet West.

Many of the ballet companies’ financial managers don’t this oversaturation as a problem. Kevin Myers at BBC believes there are still plenty of markets for Nutcrackers; he happens to know several U.S. cities on the lookout for festive dance. Some, like Bob Sochasky at the RWB, claim that a competitive climate is good for audiences, who can pick and choose a Nutcracker to their taste. And artistic directors like Mikko Nissinen at Alberta Ballet, simply trust that a well-choreographed, well-danced Nutcracker will always find an audience. All three argue that as long as the demand for Christmas tradition, there will be enough sugar plums to go around. 

Maybe. While it’s true that there’s always a new crop of velvet-clad five-year-olds at even the cheesiest Nutcrackers, most serious ballet fans flee at the plink, plink, plink that signals dancing snowflakes. As for the Nutcracker “tradition,” it’s something of an illusion: little of the original ballet based on E.T.A. Hoffman’s confusing fairy tale, is left. Companies freely improvise to Tchaikovsky’s score according to their size, budget, and abilities.

You could argue that this is the key to this ballet’s success: more than any other work in the classical canon, it lends itself to the twentieth-century urge to turn everything into a consumer product.  It isn’t about the story, or the dance; it’s about the stuff.  Trees that grow, mice that fight, and cannons that actually fire.

But that’s also the fundamental problem with the idea of art-as-a-consumer-product: purveyors have to be careful not flood the market and cheapen the brand. In believing that if they build a better mousetrap, audiences will beat a path to their theatres, too many companies are relying on a risky combination of spectacle and nostalgia to keep them in business. It’s only a matter of time before fickle consumers are lured away by some cheesier bait, and ballet companies find that all they have done is lay themselves another kind of trap.

 

23 Dec 2000
Page 16