Washington Ballet will perform without orchestra this season

By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 1, 2010; C03

The Washington Ballet will dance before an empty orchestra pit this season, citing financial constraints in its decision to use recorded music for its upcoming production of "Romeo and Juliet" at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater and, most likely, for "The Nutcracker" at the Warner Theatre.

"We've been trying to find ways to fundraise to have the orchestra back for 'The Nutcracker' and so far have not met with success," said Executive Director Russell Allen. "We're trying to get some extra bucks in the door to get the orchestra back this year, but it does not look promising, and we have advised them that only with the influx of some new unbudgeted dollars specifically designated for live music would we be able to have them."

Allen said the ballet's budget is $8 million, down from $8.3 million last year and $8.5 million in 2008. He said that retaining the orchestra for "Romeo and Juliet" would require an additional $125,000. For "The Nutcracker," the added cost would be $300,000.

The decision not to use a live orchestra will undoubtedly alter the experience for audiences accustomed to the theater-filling sound of live music for large-scale ballets, especially in premier venues such as the Kennedy Center. "Romeo and Juliet," choreographed by Artistic Director Septime Webre, will be performed there Nov. 3 (preview night) through Nov. 7. This ballet stands to be particularly ill-served by canned music; Prokofiev's deeply emotional and descriptive score provides an unusually dramatic framework for the dancing -- a living world that a taped version will be hard-pressed to approximate.

Webre's Washington-themed "Nutcracker" will run Dec. 2-26. For performances at Harman Hall in February, Allen said, "we're looking at the possibility for a small live music ensemble." But the company is not planning on an orchestra for the full-length "Le Corsaire" at the Eisenhower Theater in April.

Last year, the company used taped music for its fall production of "Don Quixote" at the Kennedy Center, and, for the first time since 1974, for its "Nutcracker" as well. In this, it was not alone, as other ballet companies around the country that have seen their budgets fall have been replacing live musicians with recordings.

Local musicians lament the Washington Ballet's decision.

"It's very shortsighted on their part," said Anne Ament, who has been a clarinetist with the Washington Ballet Orchestra for more than a decade. "I think it will cause a downward spiral, because what they're producing will go down and they lose their audience and then they lose their subscriptions. . . . It takes away the whole art of it."

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