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We need to talk about Nutcrackers!


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I read Clement Crisp's article with interest and total agreement but it brings us back to the age-old question about how audiences can be persuaded to go and see something different.

 

I started watching contemporary dance so started with and still prefer mixed bills (for example) but many of my friends prefer full length story ballets. I can't think of a way of growing an audience that is not going to cost money by starting off with small audiences and building on them. In these financially straitened times I am sure that companies will just not want to take the risk.

 

Mr Crisp mentioned that Northern Ballet had been touring their Nutcracker but their Christmas production in Leeds is a new version of Beauty and the Beast that seems to have sold very well indeed and, as you will have noticed, that I greatly enjoyed. This production is touring the country in 2012 and will hopefully provide a useful addition to Northern Ballet's family orientated/holiday favourite rep (the others being Christmas Carol, Peter Pan and Nutcracker). David Bintley has introduced us to the delights of his Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast and we should be having his Aladdin within a couple of years. The Royal Ballet has a wonderful catalogue of work to choose from. So we could have a variety of productions on over the festive season but will the non-fanatical audience accept this in the long run or has the Nutcracker "tradition" now become too embedded here, as it is in the States?

 

I, for one, would like to see many more mixed programmes. These give an opportunity to experiment more with new works and I usually find something to like on a programme whereas with a full evening work it is all to easy to dislike the whole evening. BRB and ENB seem to have given up presenting mixed programmes up-North (indeed ENB seem to have given up presenting them outside London). Northern Ballet are presenting mixed programmes in their own 200-seater theatre in Leeds. How do we persuade people that mixed programmes are satisfying, different and to be encouraged?

 

Has anyone got any thoughts?

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At the outset, and in the interest of full disclosure, I have to say that BRB at the O2 a few nights ago was my first live "Nutcracker." In the decade or so now since I developed an interest in ballet, I have never felt moved to pay full Christmas prices for this show when tapes, DVDs or plain old TV would suffice. I may therefore be unqualified to comment, but Mr Crisp must surely have a point when looking at London these last weeks. And if we take it as a given (do we?) that the Nut is scheduled as a money spinner, can all of these parallel productions in the Capital have produced what the budget setters hoped for?

 

I'm repeating the link to Mr Crisp's article for reference:

 

http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/97e21a58-20ce-11e1-816d-00144feabdc0.html#axzz1hpV5mp4N

 

In it he makes suggestions for alternatives that the Royal Ballet might consider (Fille, Cinders, Coppelia, and a number of 1-acters), a list to which I'd have thought that the new Wheeldon "Alice" might be added as a family-friendly piece.

 

There are, of course, financial imperatives weighing on companies and these are only likely to become more rigorous as Arts subsidy shrinks ahead of us - and, much as I share your preference for mixed bills, these are generally not supported by the public at large to anything like the same extent as the 19th century full-length works. And even for the supposedly more adventurous London area audience, ticket prices for these at the ROH are roughly set around half of those for a Swan Lake, say. I note your remarks about BRB and ENB giving up on mixed bills away from 'home' and that is by no means a new phenomenon. I have a copy of the ROH Annual Report for 1959-60 when the RB had its Touring Company. It notes "the essentially conservative nature of provincial audiences, who have preferred to play safe with the classics rather than risk a triple bill of novelties, and the repertory has been modified in consequence." In lamenting this situation, it (presumably Madame de Valois) went on to wonder if TV might play a useful educational role by showing some modern ballets rather than the classics "particularly unsuited to the medium." That has not proved to be the case to any great extent and here we are, some 50 years later, facing essentially the same dilemma as regards building an audience and, by inference, establishing a healthy bottom line. (And, in truth, for the RB in London, I doubt that audience size is a real worry - occasional price promotions are needed to fill seats but, for the most part, I'd say the ROH is filled for its performances. Pro-rata for its size, I've never noticed as many vacant seats as at the O2 last week.)

 

All of which said, I'm not sure where this has taken me - other than to sympathise with company directors and business staff over the financial predicament they face year by year. Is the real issue, or part of it, that they have now to sustain a backstage support staff that has grown well beyond what existed in former years, no doubt for good reasons. The annexes to that 1959-60 Report give the Royal Ballet strength at 1 November 1960 as 119 dancers in both London and Touring companies, plus 26 staff from Madame de Valois to 5 chaps in Stage Management. The backstage House staff, shared with the Opera, was just 14. Now no names were given for Wardrobe, Wigs and so on, so clearly the full picture was not shown - but a comparison of today's comparable, combined RB and BRB staff listings would, I fancy, exceed the 59-60 figures by a considerable margin. That is not to say that today's personnel are not needed by current standards but I mention it to suggest that repertoire, whilst of great moment to such as ourselves, is necessarily going to have to be shaped by the best management judgement about what can pay a company's way, as a whole. I'd happily go to "Les Noces" twice a year, but I suspect I'd have plenty of seats from which to choose by the second year of such a programming regime!

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Do we have two issues here? First: are we forever fated to have Nutcracker and more Nutcracker at this time of year or can other ballets become as popular as a holiday treat and also act as an introduction to ballet?

 

The second issue seems to be, unless I've totally misunderstood the above posts (not an uncomment event!), the full length story ballet vis a vis the mixed program in forwarding audience interest in ballet/dance.

 

On the first issue - AsNutcracker I understand it Nutcracker is not tied to Christmas in the land in which the ballet was born (Russia/USSR). However, it's theme as we know it is certainly tied to Christmas. The first act is a Christmas party, then a Christmas tree is usually the background for the soldier/mice battle....and on to the fantasy of the Sugar Plum Fairy, etc. All of that regardless of the desire for some to include some sort of psychodrama - is part of a Christmas theme. Thus, I think the ballet will remain a stalwart symbol of the season. It's a time to take a child out for a treat - maybe lunch in a restaurant and then a trip to that magical place - a theatre. If it works to raise revenue for a ballet company - why fight it?

 

For those of us who have been "crackered out" - well, it's only two weeks or so out of the year. And, the ballet's production can be manipulated to include (or not) many children. For many small companies with attached schools this is a wonderful opportunity to give students a stage experience with professional dancers.

 

As for the full length story ballet vs a mixed program - it is not only in the more provincial areas where the story ballet draws in a larger - and/or more dependable - audience. At the Orange County Performing Arts Center a touring company (which includes the biggest names in the world of ballet companies) presents mixed programs during the week nights but is required to present the full length story ballets on the weekends. The weekends are when most of the biggest supporters show up. OCPAC is not at all out in the provinces - it is the premiere dance venue (as well as other performing arts) in Southern California. A complex of several theatres, many hotels, malls, etc., in the midst of a very highly urbanized setting surrounded by millions of people.

 

Is it necessary to foster mixed programs? And, if so, why and how much?

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