If Tchaikovsky were still alive, he’d be the richest composer on the planet.
Just think about all those royalties from holiday productions of “The Nutcracker,’’ that sugar plum of a ballet performed each year by every dance company this side of the moon. In the next few weeks, you can catch more than two dozen performances by 10 companies in Tampa, Brandon, St. Petersburg, and Sarasota.
To call “The Nutcracker’’ the most popular of all ballets is an understatement. Since its premier in 1892 in St. Petersburg (the one in Russia, not Florida), it’s remained the most consistently recurring theme in the dance repertoire.
The reason? Tchaikovsky crafted his most charming tunes here, so much so that orchestras often play them gift wrapped as the “Nutcracker Suite.’’ As a full ballet, the music’s charm supports a fantasy landscape full of dancing toy soldiers, an army of mice, a wooden prince, a little girl named Clara, and a Christmas tree that grows before your eyes. Children in the audience love the spectacle, and squeal in delight when snow from above turns the stage into a winter wonderland. But “Nutcracker’’ sprinkles another form of magic, one best appreciated at the box office: money.
“A ‘Nutcracker’ is how a ballet company survives for the year,’’ said Alice Holden Bock, executive director of the Brandon Ballet, now in its 20th year. “It’s what helps make your budget. If you didn’t do a ‘Nutcracker,’ you wouldn’t have the money to get through the year.’’
“Nutcrackers’’ aren’t an option. Rather, they’re essential to the art form, says Peter Stark, artistic director of the New Generation Ballet, the in-house company at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa. The company’s lavish production — which includes $1 million worth of sets and costumes bought from Ballet Omaha — wouldn’t be possible without help from Tchaikovsky each year.
“Beyond being necessary for the survival of the company, ‘Nutcracker’ has become necessary for the survival of ballet − period,’’ Stark says. “It’s a cash cow because it sells enough tickets to end up on the profit side of things. Most productions don’t.’’
That money – along with sponsorships and state and local grants – helps ballet groups subsidize the rest of their repertoire, such as “Swan Lake,” “Giselle,’’ or “Cinderella.’’ To keep their “Nutcrackers’’ from growing old and stale, many companies introduce new choreography, sets and even plot twists. The Sarasota Ballet, for instance, veers from convention this year by sending Clara, the main character in the story, off to join the Ringling Circus.
Because of the sheer size of most productions, “The Nutcracker’’ encourages local involvement, primarily from children. The Artz 4 Life Academy Dance Company’s eclectic “The Nutcracker Twist’’ includes nearly 200 schoolchildren on stage at the Mahaffey Theater.
With so many kids auditioning, it stands to reason that families and friends will buy tickets to see them, which helps at the box office. Just as important, lots of young people will enjoy their first real dose of the performing arts.
“So it’s also good for the children,’’ Bock says. “It gets them involved not just in the performances, but exposes them to other things beyond their own schools.’’
Of course, “Nutcracker’’ is but one ballet. Hundreds of works make up the broader dance repertoire, and each stands on its own merit. But few are so critical to the future and support of the dance arts, Stark says.
“It’s the one show that pulls in the non-dance audience because it’s a holiday expectation in December,’’ he says. “A lot of kids start ballet classes because they see ‘Nutcracker,’ so it’s a point of entry. After every ‘Nutcracker,’ we have a surge of registrations. We need that because the art is struggling.’’