Editorial: Nutcracker Fail


by Steven Weisz for The Dance Journal

There’s a reason nearly every ballet company in America mounts a production of the Nutcracker for the holiday season – it pays the bills! This seasonal influx of income from holiday goers allows companies to create and perform other work during the subsequent season. One can only hope that the Nutcracker ballet will also lead to an appreciation for non-holiday fare and newer modern productions. But does it?

The Nutcracker is all about family and tradition. The show centers on the Tannenbaum Family and the magical adventure that takes place during their holiday party. It’s likely that for most goers to The Nutcracker, that this annual trek has also been a part of their own family tradition.

It is also about community and a way to bring individuals of all ages together at this time of year. In fact, The Nutcracker is one of the few productions in which one can see a multi-generational audience with child, parent and grandparents in attendance. (Something that is regularly seen in performing arts productions in Europe but not here in the United States). Many productions feature youth attendees from local dance schools, further drawing in the family elements to their audiences.

But who cannot be dazzled by the treasured Tchaikovsky score, lavish costumes, special effects, stunning sets and dancers – both professionals and local talent. So audiences continue to flock to the Nutcracker based on company reputation, nostalgia, grandchildren, strong corps de ballet or just plain Christmas Spirit.

While rare, some productions offer special “instructional” shows for students and even study guides for a better understanding of the Nutcracker. Some attempt to delve in the mystery called “ballet” or even an analysis of Tchaikovsky’s score. And of course, there are numerous books, laying out the story of the Nutcracker, one can read to children before attending such an epic performance.

But the truth is that once the last Snowflake has danced and the last production for the year has come to another end, few will go on to attend another performance of the ballet. Nutcracker audiences are just not dance audiences. Getting Nutcracker-goers to see regular repertory programs by a ballet company remains at best an elusive goal. What little data is available indicates that less than 1% of Nutcracker audiences will go on to see another repertory production.

Those that make the decision to give it a try, often select another “storybook ballet” such as Swan Lake or Sleeping Beauty. After all, we tend to stick with the all too familiar, as it offers some comfort when we venture in to uncharted territory. To someone who’s not an aficionado of classical ballet, the choreography or the general aesthetics of such a production, ballet is often viewed as simply “tedious”. So novices attending a production such as Swan Lake will have paid good money to see a four-act, three-hour ballet about cursed love and royal duty, ultimately to be turned off from ballet and dance all together.

In our efforts to push the dance-going public or the more affluent young professionals to see new things and support newer, progressive choreographers, the battle is often lost before it has even been given a chance. That is not to say all is lost. Contemporary companies such as BalletX in Philadelphia have been quite successful in attracting new audiences to more contemporary dance. Artistic Director, Christine Cox explains, “At BalletX we do everything we can to bring our audience an extraordinary dance experience. I believe our patrons feel the passion and commitment we have towards making new ballet’s and that in turn has developed a loyal patron following of all ages. I think the biggest factor in our growing audience is the fact that people are loving what they see and telling their friends”.

So the question remains, how can one transform Nutcracker audiences in to dance audiences? While there may be other marketing strategies, here are a few viable suggestions…

  1. For any ballet company producing The Nutcracker, let your production’s ticket also be a coupon for a discount to see other ballet performances offered during your season. In other words, start by providing some incentive for patrons to return. Simply advertising your season in your own program book is not enough! With a coupon in hand and a significant discount, patrons are more likely to make an additional purchase.

    2. The Nutcracker ticket could also be a discount for children to attend a special introductory performance to the ballet. This would be along the same lines of Leonard Bernstein’s Young People Concerts that introduced thousands of children to the joy of classical music. The performance should be shorter in length and focus on skills about how to watch a ballet and even a dialog with the artistic director and dancers. Ultimately, this would cultivate a future audience! At the same time, you are educating the accompanying parents and drawing them in as well!

    3. Cross-collaboration with other dance companies and even other genres of dance, in which the Nutcracker ticket also becomes a pass/coupon to see other companies throughout the year. In turn, ticket purchases to other dance performances/companies would offer a similar incentive to see your season’s ballet offerings. Keep such an offer relatively small, say between no more than five companies for more effective cross-marketing.

The core of the matter is Nutcracker-goers do not necessarily see the production as dance but more so as a holiday spectacular and tradition. It is its own entity – it is after all, “The Nutcracker”. And while it fills seats and pays the bills, we have indeed lost a potential opportunity, if we fail to act to cultivate audiences to the other wonders of the ballet and dance and to make their experience extraordinary!

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