As another Nutcracker season kicks off, companies across the nation continue to find ways to keep this time-honored holiday production fresh. Some adapt the traditional ballet by using alternate dance styles and music scores, while others bring in new themes pertinent to their community’s history or environment. But after more than 115 years of Nutcracker evolution, it seems the biggest new frontier for 2009 is how to survive the recession. Those who are forging ahead this season to produce the classic ballet in the face of budget cuts and enrollment dips report that renewing community support is key.

Shira Greenberg, founder and artistic director of Keshet Dance Company in Albuquerque, New Mexico, has produced Nutcracker on the Rocks for 12 years. This modern production twists the story by sending Clara through a rock and roll time warp in the second act, with music by James Brown, Janis Joplin and Aretha Franklin. Greenberg says that in 2008 her Nutcracker succeeded despite the bad economy, because families of the performers chipped in. This season, she plans to cut extraneous costs by again asking families to bring in rolls of toilet paper, usher performances, enter data, sew costumes or provide snacks for kids’ rehearsals.

Since the first year, Greenberg has expanded her cast from 13 dancers to now include more than 120 people, without regard to age or physical ability. “Everyone who auditions is cast,” says Lisa Nevada, rehearsal coordinator. The larger cast gives Greenberg more parents to volunteer, and it also boosts audience attendance each performance season.

In 2005, Joyce Stahl conceived, directed and produced her first Nutcracker Key West. She auditioned local students and brought in guest artists, including Wendy Whelan of New York City Ballet. In a dream, Clara and her Prince (a navy ensign) venture deep to the coral reef to watch schools of fish and sea creatures dance. Weaving in the local environment and history made it personal, Stahl says, and it helped her build community investment in the project. But just as her Nutcracker began rehearsing, four major hurricanes hit the Atlantic basin. The Key West community lost everything. Stahl managed to finish production, and community support for it grew as families were eager to rebuild their town.

Four years later, Nutcracker Key West is on hiatus for 2009 due to economic obstacles. But with the same fervor that helped Stahl claim victory over the hurricanes, she has begun fundraising to ensure a performance in 2010.

Although The Nutcracker can account for a lion’s share of a company’s annual revenue, it is also the most expensive ballet to mount. Staging the production for the first time amid the recession can seem impossible, but Janina Michalski Bove, founder and director of Ballet Virginia International in Norfolk and Virginia Beach, Virginia, did just that in 2008. To cut costs, Bove adapted a set piece from another show to create a rolling gingerbread house instead of buying a lavish Mother Ginger skirt. Bove used strobe lights instead of expensive pyrotechnics and comically replaced the costly cannon with a sign that read, “BANG!” With her second production, Bove plans to stick to her ground rule: “Don’t over-expend.” She says this forces her to use more creativity, which in turn improves the show. Along with help from volunteers, this year Bove plans to revamp costumes and gain extra community support by expanding her cast to include guest artists from other area companies.

The odds may well be stacked against The Nutcracker this season, but these intrepid impresarios show that with ingenuity and community backing the production can indeed soldier on. DT

Photo by Carol Tedesco, courtesy of Joyce Stahl

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