By Jim McCarthy Dec 3, 2009 3 comments

The Nutcracker is Bad for Ballet like Easter is Bad for Churches

I should start by saying that there’s no way you can consider me objective when it comes to the topic of The Nutcracker.  I’m the CEO of a company that gives an award each year called The Nutty to the performance around the country that our members like the most.

But there’s a reason we do that, and it’s simple: people like going to see The Nutcracker and companies like making it available.  Last time I counted, there were nearly 3 dozen different renditions of The Nutcracker on the Goldstar site, ranging from very traditional ballets to totally off the wall parodies and adaptations.

You know what that’s a sign of?  Relevance.  People actually care about this ballet, enough to parody and adapt it.  In an attention economy, that’s the ultimate currency, and it’s very important.

The Nutty Award 2009

The Nutty Award 2009

And of course, for some dance companies, The Nutcracker is the most profitable performance of the season.  Unfortunately, in some cases, it may be the only profitable item in the calendar, in which case the company relies on it to fund its work the rest of the year.

That’s not a great situation, but Sarah Kaufman, a writer for the Washington Post, has the solution: drop it.  Just get rid of it.  In fact, it “takes more than it gives.”

Wha?

Let me see if I’ve got this right.  The performance that brings in the most people and may be the only cash flow positive event of the year and stirs the hearts of people who might not otherwise sit through a dance performance is the thing you need to get rid of?

Hmmm.

How’s that supposed to work exactly?  Fewer people coming to performances, less money in the coffers, and less perceived relevance outside the already-in-the-know.

Yep.  That sounds like a winning business model.

Here’s the part of the piece that I actually like:

“To survive into the future, I think the average ballet company would do better to downsize, aim for excitement, stir the pot — and drop the full-length ballets, which are better left to the few larger, richer operations. All sorts of creative possibilities might open up if “The Nutcracker” weren’t needed as an anchor. Just imagine what might happen if some bomb-thrower took a chance on personnel, built a roster that looks like America and blew up the whole notion of dull, comfortable conformity.”

But I have a few things to say:

First, she’s talking about niches, and she’s absolutely right.  If an organization isn’t funded and capable of doing big, splashy productions, it should figure out a niche.  This, however, has nothing to do with performing The Nutcracker or not.  Like I said, it comes in a lot of shapes and sizes.

Second, “all sorts of creative possibilities might open up if “The Nutcracker weren’t needed,” strikes me as a self-evidently false statement.  There’s nothing stopping this wild creativity she’s after the other 11 months of the year, particularly if the Nutcracker is a cash-flow positive event for ballet companies and that money helps facilitate these “possibilities.”  If Nutcracker is a financial loss, organizations should drop it, but that doesn’t appear to be the case.

Third, I’m down with the bomb-thrower thing (in fact, I call it frame breaking and talk about it a lot), but only if the resulting bomb-throwing is done on behalf of the audience and not despite (or at) the audience.  She gives an example in fact of the kind of bold performance she’s looking for from years ago: “It involved a lot of metal folding chairs and a pastoral panoramic backdrop that unspooled as the dancers picked their way regally around the furniture.”  Perhaps it was a huge crowd pleaser; I wasn’t there, but I doubt it, and I don’t think the author of the article cares about that one way or the other.

The whole article, in fact, has overtones of contempt for the people who happen to, you know, fund the whole industry by buying tickets.  The “tyranny” and the “strangehold” of the Nutcracker are only possible because people began to latch onto it, not because the Nutcracker-Industrial complex shoved it down our throats.  If it were that easy, why doesn’t the same shadowy cabal force us to want whatever other dance performances they want to perform?

Because they can’t.  People seem to like the Nutcracker, and that means something.  To ignore that is to ignore the marketplace, which is exactly what I think this author is suggesting ballet companies do if you strip away the faint charges of racism and calls for experimentation.

In the end, that could mean very little other than doing things that please absolutely nobody but a few bored critics looking for something different to say, and that is no way to build an industry.

This whole matter, in fact, is a good illustration of the knife’s edge between true innovation and self-indulgence.  True innovation marries something the creator has to express with something that people might actually want.  Self-indulgence is like that scene in “The Wedding Singer” where Adam Sandler’s character says, “I have a microphone in my hand, and you will listen to every word I’m saying!”

Except patrons and potential patrons don’t have to listen.  They can walk out and never come back and you can dance among folding chairs in front of a bunch of empty chairs right up until the funding runs out.

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