'I sobbed and sobbed': For ballet companies, 'Nutcracker' loss is heartbreaking blow
Joffrey Ballet dancer Victoria Jaiani hadn't performed for three months as a result of pandemic shutdowns, and she was doubtful she'd dance this fall.
But when her bosses announced the unthinkable -- canceling "The Nutcracker" -- she lost it.
"I sobbed and sobbed," said Jaiani, who learned the news in a recent companywide Zoom meeting. "I had a hard time. It just broke me.
"That's 30-plus performances for the artists," she added. "That's a lot of stage time, which is heartbreaking."
For Jaiani and dancers across the country, the pain of separation from their art is entwined with anxiety about their professional futures. American Ballet Theatre has canceled its fall season in New York, but plans for its "Nutcracker" run in Costa Mesa, Calif., are yet to be determined, a company official said last week. Other dance companies have gone further: So far, New York City Ballet and Pennsylvania Ballet have joined the Joffrey in canceling the rest of their 2020 seasons, including their "Nutcrackers."
These troupes -- and there will probably be many more -- are watching the coronavirus crisis engulf nearly a year's worth of performances. (The Washington Ballet's fall season "will most likely be completely digital," said marketing director Scott Greenberg, and a decision on "The Nutcracker" will come in August.)
Yet the scrapped "Nutcrackers" are not just any performances. With its festive, recognizable Tchaikovsky music, nostalgic vision of family togetherness at Christmas, and broad appeal to all ages, "The Nutcracker" is generally a ballet company's only box-office triumph. Its ticket sales dwarf those of other productions. This ballet alone can help keep a company afloat, its multiple weeks of revenue funding the year's less-marketable and more adventurous works.
Its absence can mean a massive revenue loss. New York City Ballet projects that the lack of "Nutcracker" ticket sales will result in a $14.5 million loss. According to Jonathan Stafford, NYCB's artistic director, with the rest of the scratched fall season taken into account, losses could total $20 million.
The cost of cancellation, however, isn't only financial. Artistically, "The Nutcracker" is a massive playing field where dancers can achieve breakthroughs, because over the unusually long run of performances, they are typically cast in many different roles: the living dolls, snowflakes and toy soldiers, the embodied sweets and flowers, to name just a few. The annual "Nutcracker" marathon offers chances to experiment and become comfortable in a range of characters and styles. It's a prized platform for showing off strengths and catching the director's eye.
So while missing a cherished holiday ritual is surely a letdown for audiences hoping for some bright light in the months ahead, it's an incomparable hardship for the dancers, whose careers are idling as precious time is lost, and for the ballet companies struggling to pay them, amid grave financial losses.
For those involved in bringing this ballet to the stage -- and we can't forget the musicians, designers and stage crews -- canceling "The Nutcracker" is a blow to morale and their already strained resources.
For Stafford, the decision to cancel "was devastating for me, personally, and for the organization." "The Nutcracker" was the first ballet he saw, as a child.
"It's one of the reasons I started dancing," Stafford said. "To take that live opportunity away for even a year has an impact on the young people out there. You never know who might be in the audience and who might be inspired to start dancing."
Then there are the students from NYCB's affiliated School of American Ballet who won't have the chance to inhabit the stage with their grown-up idols.
For the company, Stafford said, "it's another 10 weeks that our dancers will lose from their careers. And maybe they'll have an injury next year, or had one last year. The lost weeks of performance really are devastating from an emotional standpoint."
A couple of issues drove the decision to cancel, Stafford said. First came the safety of the artists, children in the cast, crew and audiences, amid the virus: "Crowded indoor space," he said, "is the hardest challenge for any organization like ours to overcome."
It takes an army to put on "The Nutcracker" night after night. NYCB's version, choreographed by George Balanchine, includes about 125 children, for starters. With the rest of its large cast, plus wardrobe staff and stagehands, social distancing onstage and off is impossible.
Also, Stafford added that children's rehearsals normally start early in the fall, but the company may not be permitted back in its studios by then.
Up to now, NYCB administrative staff has been paid. But the new fiscal year, beginning July 1, will likely include pay cuts and furloughs, Stafford said. The dancers and musicians are on a planned layoff, as usual in the summer.
As for the future?
"We're working on how we'll compensate them if we're not performing," he said.
The Joffrey Ballet is in a similar bind.
"We couldn't have asked for a harder blow," said artistic director Ashley Wheater.
"When you're at the top of your game as a professional dancer, like being a professional athlete, your practices and rehearsals are driving you to an end point, which is to be on the stage in front of an audience," Wheater said. "So when you take that away, it's hard to have motivation."
The Joffrey stands to lose $6.5 million from its three canceled productions: a "Don Quixote" in May, "Manon" in October and "The Nutcracker" in December. "The Nutcracker" accounts for $4.5 million of that loss, said Joffrey president and chief executive Greg Cameron.
"Trust me, I've had lots of tears," he said. "But we feel if we don't do this, there could potentially not be a Joffrey Ballet next year to do a 'Nutcracker.' "
It sounds counterintuitive to shelve your biggest-selling ballet to save your company. But this is the problem: Ballet troupes need to start rehearsing and spending money in advance to make those ticket sales happen. And this year, those big sales won't materialize, in these directors' estimations, because the social distancing required will make it impossible to get hundreds of artists and thousands of spectators into and out of the theater safely.
Cameron points to the specific complexities of the Joffrey's "Nutcracker," created with a Chicago World's Fair theme by Christopher Wheeldon and unveiled in 2016. Auditions usually start in August for the 90 children in the cast, but Joffrey studios may not be able to open until at least a month later. Then the orchestra needs a financial commitment. And rehearsal expenses were projected to be especially high this year, the Joffrey's first season dancing in Chicago's grand Lyric Opera House. Wheeldon and other production officials were to fly in and oversee fitting the ballet to its new home.
"Then the medical experts are predicting a second (coronavirus) wave," Cameron said. "We can't spend a million dollars only to find out we'll have to cancel."
The Joffrey is cutting expenses to pay its 45 dancers and some staff. Its budget has been cut from $23 million to $10 million, but Cameron hopes to raise $12 million "to keep us whole for 18 months." The board has given $6 million so far.
The big question: What will keeping "Nutcracker" in storage mean for these troupes' future? Joffrey is smart to draw up an 18-month survival plan. NYCB, which has 95 dancers, is doing the same, weighing salary cuts and the possibility of dipping into its $200 million endowment.
"There are huge implications going forward," said NYCB's Stafford. He's still hoping for a six-week winter season at the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center, starting in January.
"I wouldn't say that we're erasing things out of our planning. We're not at that point," he said. "Our mission is creating new work, and we are not giving up on that. We may have to make some tweaks, like not being able to redo costumes, or putting on a major new production."
So one non-"Nutcracker" season can probably be survived. But given medical uncertainties, what if it comes to two?
"I honestly don't want to think about that," said the Joffrey's Wheater.
"But if that happens, we would find a way."