Arts & Style

Breaking pointe: 'The Nutcracker' takes more than it gives to world of ballet

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 22, 2009

Come the twilight of the year, the deathless "Nutcracker" begins its march across American stages, bearing tidings of comfort and joy.

Oh, goody.

Yet to those of us who despair of its pervading tweeness and wish ballet had something better to do at this time of year than endlessly reminisce like a sweet, whiskery auntie, it bears some bad news, too. "The Nutcracker's" stranglehold is all but squeezing ballet dry.

That warm and welcoming veneer of domestic bliss in "The Nutcracker" gives the appearance that all is just plummy in the ballet world. But ballet is beset by serious ailments that threaten its future in this country: American dancers are less likely than ever to hold the top rank in American companies. African Americans have dismal prospects of inclusion -- of all of the nation's performing arts, none is more segregated than ballet. And the companies are so cautious in their programming that they have effectively reduced an art form to a rotation of over-roasted chestnuts that no one can justifiably croon about.

The tyranny of "The Nutcracker" is emblematic of how dull and risk-averse American ballet has become.

Let's start with "The Nutcracker's" role in all this. No other ballet has been performed by more companies, danced by more dancers or seen by more Americans. This season marks the 65th anniversary of the country's first full-length production, by the San Francisco Ballet. It wasn't such a smash hit back then, but certainly over the past half-century "The Nutcracker" has become the category killer in ballet, what "The Night Before Christmas" is to American poetry -- the most known, the most quotable. Tchaikovsky's tunes seem to toot around every corner this time of year, while attending the ballet has become a secular ritual, a tinseled micro-Mecca for thousands of families.

Starting Tuesday, Washington audiences can see the version of the ballet that's credited with launching the national "Nutcracker" obsession: George Balanchine's 1954 account, originally created for the New York City Ballet. The Pennsylvania Ballet will perform its Kennedy Center premiere.

Because "The Nutcracker" can turn a profit, it can account for as much as half of a ballet company's total annual performances. Chances are, the other, non-"Nutcracker" half of a company's season relies on a couple of standards and too few new works of consequence. And most companies cannot bring in enough funding to exist without relying on "Nutcracker" sales.

This all sounds pretty Scroogish, but I'll be straight with you: While I have grown tired of "The Nutcracker," I don't hate it. I don't discount that the ballet brings great happiness to many -- even, off and on, to a critic. What I do regret is "The Nutcracker's" ubiquity, the way it stifles any other creative efforts in dance during the holiday season. Most of all, I regret its necessity as an income source.

Money problems weigh on ballet like a stone around its neck: salaries, rent, costumes, toe shoes, insurance, musicians, storage and so on. Debt is a big factor in all the conservative programming out there.

But the main problem is this: Ballet suffers from a serious lack of confidence that is only growing more and more paralyzing.

Plie it safe

There were moments throughout the 20th century when ballet was brave. When it threw bold punches at its own conventions. First among these was the Ballets Russes period, when ballet -- ballet -- lassoed the avant-garde art movement and, with works such as Michel Fokine's fashionably sexy "Scheherazade" (1910) and Leonide Massine's Cubist-inspired "Parade" (1917), made world capitals sit up and take notice. Afraid of scandal? Not these free-thinkers; Vaslav Nijinsky's rough-hewn, aggressive "Rite of Spring" famously put Paris in an uproar in 1913.

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