Can Nutcracker Revenues Be Saved?

Ballet companies have long counted on Nutcracker engagements as the revenue gift that keeps on giving. This season, canceled shows are a pain point for the dance industry, but ballet companies are finding innovative ways to reimagine this part of their business.

Two cameras film the snow scene of the Nutcracker onstage, which we see from a distance—dancers in light blue tutus, Clara being pulled in a sleigh by Drosselmeier, and snow falling from the sky
Behind the scenes of Nashville Ballet’s Nutcracker film. Photo by Deborah Climo

For ballet companies, The Nutcracker has long been the gift that keeps on giving. After more than a century, the classic Tchaikovsky ballet has become a holiday tradition that’s right up there with gingerbread houses and letters to Santa, cementing the annual production’s status as a linchpin for many companies’ long-term survival.

The Nutcracker has proven to be the save-all for every performance season,” says Shakira Segundo, director of research for Dance/USA. “I liken it to when a television network has a hit show that carries the whole network and they keep renewing it season after season.”

And much like a hit show, The Nutcracker’s audience is ever growing as what many consider a “gateway ballet.” Not only does The Nutcracker inspire future dancers to fall in love with the art form, but the production also attracts a broad crowd of patrons, some of whom will hopefully return throughout the year for another ballet.

“Because of the festive and multigenerational nature of The Nutcracker, it’s a way to reach a wider array of the public than you can with more experimental work,” says Amy Fitterer, executive director of Dance/USA. “It helps to have crowd-pleasers, and The Nutcracker is a very important one.”

Though overhead can be high—with budgets for a new production for small to mid-sized companies typically hitting upwards of $2 million—the reward usually outweighs the risk. A 2017 Dance/USA survey found that The Nutcracker represented 48 percent of surveyed companies’ overall season revenues, with a median of 55 percent. That economic impact ripples throughout the dance industry, driving sales for shoes, costumes, props and much more. (For instance, San Francisco Ballet typically goes through 1,200 pairs of pointe shoes during Nutcracker season.)

“If a company can’t do its traditional event that helps it earn all the revenue needed for the rest of the year, they’ll have to significantly cut costs or fill that budget gap from somewhere else,” says Ellen Bast, an instructor for Charm City Ballet and senior research associate for the Regional Economic Studies Institute.

The “somewhere else” is what many companies are concentrating on in the face of COVID-19—after all, if 2020 has made anything crystal clear, it’s that dance companies must be prepared to pivot and not be overly reliant on any single income stream. This year’s losses have been significant: Very few companies have been able to perform live at all, and cancellations of The Nutcracker could mean multimillion-dollar losses.

In hopes of offsetting those losses, companies are finding creative ways to deliver The Nutcracker in the absence of traditional live performances. Cases in point: Boston Ballet will air The Nutcracker in conjunction with local affiliate NBC10 Boston; Miami City Ballet is moving its Nutcracker production outdoors to Downtown Doral Park; and Atlanta Ballet will host viewings of a prior performance at a pop-up drive-in movie theater outside Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, along with offering on-demand online access.

And though these revamped Nutcrackers may not deliver the usual financial returns, they may be setting the stage for greater success in the future. “The unexpected outcome of all these different works is that it may grow the Nutcracker audience even more,” says Fitterer.

Just ask Paul Vasterling, artistic director of Nashville Ballet. He’s been involved with The Nutcracker as either a performer or behind the scenes for over 40 years, and he has no plans of stopping just because there’s a global pandemic. On December 18, WTVF Nashville will broadcast the company’s filmed version of Nashville’s Nutcracker to an audience of hopefully over 360,000 people (as opposed to 25,000 to 30,000 for the company’s usual live performances).

“It’s not just about selling a ticket to a show. It’s about bringing people to the art form and into our mission,” says Vasterling. “The Nutcracker in many ways is a doorway for people to come into the organization’s work.”

Vasterling is hoping to welcome even more ballet aficionados with the new film, which is backed by 11 corporate sponsors and an individual-giving campaign with giving levels from $100 to $25,000-plus. The campaign had a goal of $395,000, and provided work to dancers and staff during a difficult time.

The film’s debut follows months of preparation, which included transforming a warehouse into a soundstage, filming dancers separately for COVID-19 safety, and editing together all of that footage. Set in 1897 during the Tennessee Centennial Exposition, the Wizard of Oz–inspired film goes from sepia tone to Technicolor as Clara is exposed to different cultures from around the world and her imagination is expanded.

As Vasterling sees it, the Nutcracker refresh isn’t just flipping the script on the classic story, but on the way the company will proceed in the future. “Moving forward, the live theatrical exchange of art is probably not the only basket we want to be putting our eggs into,” says Vasterling. “At every level of our organization, we’re talking about the ways we deliver our product and how we start to diversify that.”

For instance, Nashville Ballet has begun to utilize recordings of its second company performances for younger audiences spanning kindergarten through fourth grade. “The idea is to offer digital performances accompanied with custom educational guides, Zoom conversations with the ballet’s creators, and other helpful materials for schools to integrate into their curriculum,” says former interim public relations manager Lauren McKirgan.

Fitterer agrees that “the future is a hybrid of both in-person and high-quality virtual experiences.” Though she believes that price-setting can be a tricky proposition when it comes to mounting virtual experiences—as most companies and studios charge less for virtual performances—the two-pronged approach can ultimately be a way for companies to scale up and offer more options to patrons.

Virtual programming has other positives, like expanded geographic reach and potential cost savings, says Segundo. She points to Dance/USA’s annual conference as an example, sharing that this year’s virtual installment attracted 1,300 attendees, as opposed to the typical 500 people.

“Having been on the inside as an administrator, I know there are so many people who want to see these productions and can’t be physically present to do so,” says Segundo, who previously worked with Orlando Ballet and The Washington Ballet. “I work with a lot of nonprofits, and the number-one request moving forward has been to always have a virtual component—even after things go back to ‘normal.’”

Though many of these choices have stemmed from survival mode during COVID-19, Vasterling welcomes the shakeup and foresees permanent shifts to the dance landscape—which he sees as a good thing.

“The worst thing an organization can do is get caught in a rut, which is sort of a paradox in an art form that’s all about tradition,” says Vasterling. “For a long time, things like pink tights and shoes have been accepted as ‘This is in our DNA; this is how we do it.’ Why? Because we always have, but that’s not a good enough reason anymore. We have to think out of the box.”

Jen Jones Donatelli is a Cleveland-based freelance writer and editor. Her work has appeared in Dance Magazine, Dance Spirit, Dance Teacher, Dance Retailer News and she is the former managing editor of CheerProfessional magazine