It’s a seasonal ritual that countless families enjoy — getting dressed in their holiday finest and heading off to see a local production of the “The Nutcracker,” that candy-coated ballet that celebrates all things Christmas.
It’s also a ritual that’s critical to the bottom line of many dance companies, which depend on those solid “Nutcracker” sales to get them through the rest of the year. In fact, one prominent company, the Atlanta Ballet, told me that 70% of its annual box-office revenue derives from its production of the holiday favorite.
It’s little wonder the company invested nearly $5 million in its extravagant version — it’s about making sure audiences are fully entertained and wanting to come back for more.
I hate to burst any sugar-plum bubbles here, but I’ve got one message for all those “Nutcracker” fans out there: It’s time to move on to another ballet.
“I hate to burst any sugar-plum bubbles here, but I’ve got one message for all those “Nutcracker” fans out there: It’s time to move on to another ballet.”
As someone who’s written about arts and culture for a good chunk of his journalistic career, I’ve attended a lot of “Nutcracker” performances — probably close to 50 at this point. I’d be lying if I said I never enjoyed them. The ballet’s story, which tells the fantastical tale of a girl and her toy nutcracker-turned-prince and their eventual journey to a land of sweets and enchantment, can be, well, sweet and enchanting. And the music, by Tchaikovksy, is so filled with aural sparkle that it just sounds like Christmas.
But the ballet can be a tough nut to crack, so to speak, especially for younger audiences. It’s filled with elements that border on the scary (think a battle scene with oversized mice). And its sheer length — around two hours — can try the patience of children. Trust me: I’ve seen one too many families who have had to contend with all this and have clearly left the theater less than happy.
And that’s after they’ve spent hundreds of dollars on tickets — I know a former colleague whose “Nutcracker” tab ran $1,400 this year for her family of five! — and no small sum on souvenirs and snacks to placate their progeny and get them through the second act.
Let’s also not forget some of the problematic elements in “The Nutcracker” in terms of how it can propagate stereotypes. I’m thinking of the Chinese and Arabian-themed numbers in the second act, which can be downright offensive by today’s standards, though some companies are rethinking these portions to avoid such issues.
Still, the real problem I have with “The Nutcracker” is that for too many families and individuals, it’s the only dance event — and, in some cases, the only cultural event — they attend all year. And even if you treasure the ballet for some of the reasons I cite above, I’d make the case that we could all benefit from a little more art in our complicated and stressed-out lives. Plus, part of the joy of going to see any live entertainment is the thrill of the unexpected — or at least the thrill of seeing something beyond what often amounts to a holiday trifle.
My particular cultural passion these days is theater — and living in New York City, I’m blessed to see a good many Broadway shows. But if I think back to the production I enjoyed most this past year, it wasn’t some glitzy, highly anticipated Broadway musical, but a 75-minute off-Broadway play that was a bizarrely poetic take on the Frankenstein tale, offered up by a visiting troupe from Northern Ireland.
Of course, there’s no saying you can’t have it both ways — that is, you can enjoy your “Nutcracker” and then attend another ballet or two. Indeed, ballet companies make no small effort to woo their “Nutcracker” audiences back. At the Atlanta Ballet, for example, the push is already on to get the “Nutcracker” crowd to buy tickets for an intriguing new ballet they company is presenting in February about the life of fashion great Coco Chanel.
“I certainly wish people would see more of what we do,” Atlanta Ballet executive director Tom West told me.
I also get that holiday tradition is holiday tradition for some families. And “The Nutcracker” is such a part of the season that foregoing it would be like foregoing baking Christmas cookies or trimming the tree.
Lauren Sikora, a New Jersey resident and regular “Nutcracker” attendee, told me she’s been going to one production or another, including the famous New York City Ballet version, since she was five. Sikora is now 41 and she continues the tradition by taking her young daughter with her.
“It doesn’t feel like Christmas until we go,” Sikora shared.
To be clear, if it weren’t for folks like Sikora and thousands of others buying those “Nutcracker” tickets, we’d probably have a lot less dance to see the rest of the year.
““The Nutcracker” is the engine that drives the train for many ballet companies, most of which are nonprofit organizations that perpetually struggle to balance their budgets. ”
Again, “The Nutcracker” is the engine that drives the train for many ballet companies, most of which are nonprofit organizations that perpetually struggle to balance their budgets. Data from Dance/USA, which represents companies throughout the U.S., shows that the Atlanta Ballet is hardly an exception: Sales from the “The Nutcracker” account for 42% to 79% of annual ticket revenue for the 20 institutions it recently surveyed.
And companies have been especially feeling the pinch since the pandemic, which forced them to shut down for many months and put them in an ever-more financially precarious situation.
Dance groups “are still feeling discombobulated by the massive organizational fluctuations” of the COVID era, said Kellee Edusei, executive director of Dance/USA. Edusei added that ticket sales are rebounding, but audiences are especially craving the comfort of familiar works as part of that recovery.
You certainly can’t get more familiar than “The Nutcracker” — for better or worse. I’ll skip it myself this year, but if it brings you and your family some joy during the holidays, by all means go see it.
Just remember: There are 11 more months of dance on the calendar.