Getting the Most Out of Your Nutcracker Budget

Three studio owners share their know-how and numbers.

Don’t duke it out over prices for your Nutcracker.

Chances are, you either produce an annual Nutcracker each winter or students are constantly begging you to institute one. It’s no small undertaking: A comprehensive Nutcracker means budgeting for costumes, backdrops, insurance, marketing, guest-artist salaries and more. Most studio owners don’t undertake these productions as profit generators; they see them as an investment in community visibility and an opportunity to promote studio loyalty. No matter your studio size or where your production falls on the spectrum of all things Nutcracker, you’re surely always looking for ways to cut costs, raise revenue and brand your winter show to guarantee its status as a community staple. Here, owners of three studios of varying sizes and locations share their tricks of the Nutcracker trade.

LIKE MOTHER, LIKE DAUGHTER

For her annual Nutcracker production, Nicole Benson, owner of the 150-student Benson Academy of Dance, Inc., in Ocala, Florida, turns to the Marion Ballet Theatre that her mother, Jeanne Benson Smith, founded as the studio’s resident company more than 30 years ago. As a nonprofit, MBT qualifies for state and community grants and private donations, which cover most of the production costs. (Nicole, who took over the studio after her mother died, was also appointed artistic director of MBT by the nonprofit’s board of directors.) Benson charges $25 per dancer for auditions, which are also open to the community. Dancers who make it into MBT also pay a $50 membership fee.

Ticket Price: $20 (10 shows total)

Overall Budget: $100,000

To Cut Costs

A friend of Benson’s offered to create the ballet’s four backdrops, which means Benson no longer has to fork over a couple thousand dollars each year for scenery.

Several MBT moms went to “tutu school,” where they learned to sew basic classical tutus, in both short and Romantic lengths. Afterward, one mother created all the “Waltz of the Flowers” costumes.

Benson found company dads to volunteer for event security, eliminating that expense.

To Fund the Production

Each child in the ballet has to sell two advertisements for the program magazine.

Last year, Benson’s board of directors raised ticket sales by organizing field trips for three different groups of Marion County schoolchildren to see MBT’s Nutcracker. Benson cut the show to a half-hour for these performances—so they could happen over the course of one day, one right after another, and the dancers wouldn’t miss too much school themselves.

Branding Strategies

Benson gets her ballet company out in the community as often as possible. When the local library put on a fairy-tale festival, Benson sent her Sugar Plum Fairy in costume as a representative. She supplied dancers for book signings when a local author published a book about the ballet.

Selected Budget Items

Ocala Civic Theatre rental, for two weeks: $8,500

Lighting and sound, for design work and tech time: $7,500

Costumes: $3,000 to replace the “Waltz of the Flowers” corps’ and soloists’ outfits last year.

Marketing (local magazine and newspaper advertising, posters and two or three billboards): $7,500

Liability insurance: $3,500

Guest artists (performance stipend, travel, car rental, accommodations): $15,000

Extras Renting a recording studio to re-record Tchaikovsky’s music in a new order each year and program printing

HOME IS WHERE THE TALENT IS

Unlike most Nutcracker productions, studio owner Gina Chiavelli’s ballet only features dancers who audition from among her 600 students at Pinewood School of Dance and the local Dutchess and Putnam County, New York, area. She saves thousands of dollars on guest-artist travel, accommodations and performance stipends, while simultaneously creating a niche of pure local talent for her production, now in its 10th year. The combined performance troupe is known as the Dutchess Dance Theatre. Each child pays an $85 participation fee.

Ticket price: $17 (two shows)

Overall Budget: $33,000

To Cut Costs

For Chiavelli’s first Nutcracker, a studio mom offered to make all the angel, mouse and soldier costumes; Chiavelli, who paid for materials, still uses these costumes today.

Every parent with a child in the ballet has to volunteer, whether ushering, selling concessions, installing backdrops, laying marley, altering costumes, selling tickets or coordinating other volunteers.

To Fund the Production

Each student is asked to sell at least one ad in the program to a local business.

Chiavelli runs a concession stand before the show and during intermission.

Branding Strategies

Tapping into community pride, Chiavelli promotes her show as being entirely homegrown—and without watering down the notoriously difficult choreography.

Selected Budget Items

Local high school theater rental, for four days (two dress rehearsals and two performances): $5,000

Lighting crew of five: $1,500

Costumes, replaced every few years: $800 per soloist tutu

Scenery (three backdrops): $1,500

Marketing (newspapers, PennySaver, posters and e-mail blasts): $5,000

Extras Rehearsal assistants’ salaries and the monthly cost of storage space

BUILDING A TOWN TRADITION

Of the 800 students at Lisa Tuska’s Colorado School of Dance in Parker, Colorado, 120 participate in the school’s annual Nutcracker production, each paying an $85 fee. Tuska aims to cover at least two-thirds of her expenses with revenues. She named her production the Nutcracker of Parker, enlisted support from the mayor and put on community performances, making it an essential part of the town’s holiday season.

Ticket Price: $20–25 (six shows)

Overall Budget: $33,000

To Cut Costs

When she learned that the Parker community was building a cultural arts center, Tuska began writing letters of intent to the city from the Nutcracker of Parker, rather than her studio. Because her winter ballet has become a community event endorsed by the mayor, Tuska is able to split her ticket sales with the theater, in lieu of paying rent.

To Fund the Production

Tuska created a “Junior Clara Club,” in which kids ages 4 to 7 pay $25 each to learn a dance, dress up and then do a performance during the mayor’s annual toast to the production.

She joined the chamber of commerce and obtained the mailing list for sponsorships; Tuska targeted these businesses when selling publicity spots in the program.

Branding Strategies

By officially naming her ballet the Nutcracker of Parker, Tuska cemented her studio’s role in the community’s winter holiday activities. She invited the mayor to make an opening toast during the first night of performances. Studio members also perform during the town’s Christmas tree–lighting ceremony.

Selected Budget Items

Props: $2,000–3,000

Backdrop rental (three backdrops): $1,400

Costumes (last year, Tuska replaced the Snow costumes and accounted for alterations): $4,200

Photographer: $900

Extras Awards and ribbons for the cast DT

From top: photo by Dave Schlenker, courtesy of Nicole Benson; by Jeffrey Baker, courtesy of Gina Chiavelli; by Darcy Miccio Pace, courtesy of Lisa Tuska

Music
Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.


"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

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