Another holiday tradition will be missed because of the pandemic this year. “The Nutcracker” is not being performed before many live audiences in America.
Not by the New York City Ballet, The Joffrey in Chicago, or companies in Atlanta, Boston, Austin, Milwaukee, Sacramento and Philadelphia. That may spare a number of gingerbread soldiers and mice. But the cancellation of so many presentations of Tchaikovsky’s ballet strikes at the heart of the health of dance companies and the arts across America.
The Nutcracker is often the first and sometimes the only ballet someone sees. Max Hodges, executive director of the Boston Ballet, told us the ballet — the story of a Christmas Eve party and a little girl named Clara who befriends a toy nutcracker who comes to life — is “the pipeline to welcome audiences into the art of ballet.” It can also be the first production in which youngsters interested in dance can see dreams take flight onstage, as the Nutcracker battles a Mouse King and the Sugar Plum Fairy dances in the Land of Sweets.
“The Nutcracker” is also the production that helps make a lot of others possible. That holiday ballet can account for 20% of many companies’ ticket sales, and, in the case of a major company like Chicago’s Joffrey, about half of its annual earned revenue. Ashley Wheater, the artistic director of The Joffrey, told us the company has lost more than $12 million in earnings during the pandemic and has had to cancel newer works they had planned.
A study in August by the Brookings Institution found that even by then, the pandemic had cost the fine and performing arts industry about $42.5 billion across the country, and about 1.4 million jobs. To put faces on those numbers, that means: Many people we have seen onstage in theaters — Broadway, regional and community — and in dance performances of all kinds and have heard in orchestras and bands across the country are without work. So are costumers, lighting and set designers, box-office staff, and those who clean the stages where stars tread. Without support, there are plays that will not be seen, music that will not be heard, dancers who cannot leap into view, and artists who will have to find other ways to make a living.
There is much daily loss and suffering in America right now. It may seem elitist to worry about the future of the arts when so many people struggle for food, work and health care. But the arts can fire minds, warm souls, dazzle and delight. We will want them to be there in times ahead, for us and especially for our children. As Ashley Wheater told us, “Live art, the magic of the theater, is one of the few things that can bring total strangers together in unique harmony, reminding us of our humanity.”