Each fall, when the calendar turns to “The Nutcracker” season, Robert Weiss admits he has pretty much the same reaction every time.
“When it comes up, it’s always, ‘Oh my God, how can we do “Nutcracker” again?,’ ” said Weiss, the longtime artistic director of Carolina Ballet. “But then you hear the music and see the children’s delight from experiencing ballet for the first time, and it’s Christmas. So you get back into it because it is very special. You just can’t help it.”
It also doesn’t hurt that, year in and year out, “The Nutcracker” makes the cash registers sing. Carolina Ballet has put on this holiday-season chestnut every season for the past 15 years, in part because it remains the company’s most reliable annual money-maker.
Starting with this weekend’s shows at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Memorial Hall, Carolina Ballet will stage 21 “Nutcracker” performances at three venues across the Triangle this month. Collectively, they’ll sell more than $1 million worth of tickets, a windfall that covers a sizable chunk of the company’s annual budget of $5.8 million.
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“Close to 20 percent of our budget every year is ‘Nutcracker’ ticket sales,” Weiss said. “It’s become a big reason why ballet companies survive. It’s the only thing we can sell 21 performances of.”
“The Nutcracker” represents serious business elsewhere in the Triangle, too. A touring production of “The Hip Hop Nutcracker” emceed by ’80s rapper Kurtis Blow played 2,700-seat Durham Performing Arts Center last month, and sold it out.
Walltown Children’s Theatre in Durham has also done a modified variant called “The Durham Nutcracker” for seven years, with proceeds earmarked for a “Black Box Project” expansion of its studio facility. And Carolina Youth Ballet’s Nov. 19 “Nutcracker” at Raleigh’s Fletcher Opera Theater raised more than $1,000 for the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
But it’s not a financial boon for everyone. Next weekend at N.C. State’s Stewart Theatre will be the 24th straight year that the City Ballet Raleigh school puts on “The Nutcracker,” despite the fact that it’s actually a money-loser for the group.
“We have to rent the theater and pay for lighting, soundboard people, guest artists,” said Elizabeth McMahon, City Ballet Raleigh’s marketing director. “It’s expensive, but we value it because we want our students to be involved in a real professional production.”
With all its baubles and sugar plums, “The Nutcracker” as perennial holiday-season favorite is unique to America. Most U.S productions happen during the winter holidays, but it’s performed in other countries year-round.
“The Nutcracker” dates back to 1892, based on a children’s story about a nutcracker toy coming to life and teaming up with a young girl to defeat an evil mouse king. But when “The Nutcracker” premiered in composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s native Russia, initial reactions weren’t particularly positive – especially compared to Tchaikovsky’s other great Russian ballets “Swan Lake” and “Sleeping Beauty.”
In America, however, “The Nutcracker” took off, especially after choreographer George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet made it an annual Christmas tradition starting in 1954. Like beach music, “The Nutcracker” has become a recurrent, comfortably familiar and generation-spanning rite of passage.
“It’s definitely not Christmas for us without it,” said Jay Krueger of Durham, a regular Carolina Ballet attendee. “ ‘The Nutcracker’ has become a staple and necessity of the holiday season, a great way to get into the Christmas spirit. We go every year, some years more than once.”
By now, countless companies both large and small stage “The Nutcracker” across the U.S. every year. A lot of them depend on the money it makes even more than Carolina Ballet does.
“There are some companies where it brings in up to 90 percent of their annual budget,” said University of California at Irvine associate professor Jennifer Fisher, author of the 2003 book “Nutcracker Nation: How an Old World Ballet Became a Christmas Tradition in the New World.” “But it would not make that money if it were not serving a purpose and filling a need in the community. It’s really resonant this time of year, the impulse to do something bright and optimistic during the dark solstice.
“Any ballet or dance company that ignores ‘Nutcracker’ does so at its peril,” Fisher added. “Beyond the money, it plucks at the heartstrings and points to things people have in common. It’s a meaningful ritual and something we can all share. This has been a fractious and depressing season for anyone worried about the future, but we’re all able to come together for this classic. Now more than ever, it’s a kind of therapy for a dark season of the soul.”
‘I still love it’
There’s no danger of Carolina Ballet ignoring “The Nutcracker” anytime soon, or at least as long as Weiss is in charge because he loves it unabashedly. It was the first ballet Weiss ever saw at age 5, and the first one he danced in himself at age 9. Including the 2016 model, Weiss has been involved in 43 years worth of “Nutcracker” productions as a dancer or director.
“It’s a perennial that always does well,” Weiss said. “It fluctuates some years and I can’t tell you why, but it’s always popular. It’s wonderful for kids, and adults can experience that wonder through their children’s eyes. I still love it.”
That ritual of “The Nutcracker” is important, yet so is the bottom-line aspect of it. That’s something that everyone connected with Carolina Ballet is well aware of.
“We all know that ‘The Nutcracker’ really is our bread and butter,” said dancer Margaret Severin-Hansen, a Carolina Ballet veteran who has been in all 15 of the company’s “Nutcracker” productions. “I’ve always loved it, and not every dancer will say that. Some of them are tired of the music because it’s everywhere this time of year – at the mall and in the car, too. But it’s my favorite time of the year and ‘Nutcracker’ goes along with that.”
Where to see ‘The Nutcracker’ in the Triangle
▪ Carolina Ballet presents “The Nutcracker” at 8 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 3, and 2 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 4, at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Memorial Hall. For ticket information go to www.carolinaperformingarts.org. Also, Friday, Dec. 9 through Dec. 11 at Durham Performing Arts Center; and Dec. 16-24 at Raleigh Memorial Auditorium. For show times and ticket details, see carolinaballet.com.
▪ Walltown Children’s Theatre performs “The Durham Nutcracker” at 2:30 p.m. and 5 p.m. Sunday at Durham Arts Council’s PSI Theatre. Tickets are $5-$25. See walltownchildrenstheatre.org for details.
▪ Infinity Ballet Theatre performs “Nutcracker Dances” at 2 p.m. and 4 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 4, at Apex’s Halle Cultural Arts Center. See infinityballet.com for details.
▪ City Ballet Raleigh performs “The Nutcracker” Friday, Dec. 9 and Dec. 10 at N.C. State’s Stewart Theatre. See city-ballet.com for times and ticket prices.
▪ Moscow Ballet’s “Great Russian Nutcracker” plays at Durham’s Carolina Theatre at 7 p.m., Dec. 14-15. See carolinatheatre.org for ticket information.
▪ Cary Ballet Conservatory performs “The Nutcracker” Dec. 15-18. They will also do a promotional 1-hour performance at 1:30 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 4, at Trader Joe’s in Cary. See caryballet.com for other show times and ticket prices.