You can’t quite say that there was absolutely no live music at last weekend’s opening performance of The Washington Ballet’s lavish annual production of The Nutcracker. On the streets outside the Warner Theatre on Friday night, a horn ensemble was playing a holiday medley, complete with selections from Tchaikovsky’s Christmas favorite.
As for the rest of the musicians who ordinarily accompany the holiday spectacle, they were engaged in other pursuits: As theater-goers filed in, a half-dozen of them were busily passing out leaflets critical of the 66-year-old ballet company, which this year will put on the holiday classic with a cast of over 400 dancers, a few local celebrities—and, for the second season running, exactly zero musicians.
What went wrong? Live music is one thing that separates the nationally prominent companies from the local also-rans among the 21 Nutcrackers on this year’s holiday arts calendar. In every year but one since 1974, The Washington Ballet had counted itself among the former contingent, engaging orchestra musicians to play as the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier dance on stage.
But this year, a lousy national economy and some tumultuous local politics have gotten in the way: With philanthropic donors tightening their belts and the D.C. Council engaged in a jihad against earmarks like the one that previously helped subsidize the company’s music budget, the Ballet slashed its live orchestra budget for the season. “We’d love to have musicians there,” says the Ballet’s director of artistic operations, Arthur Espinoza. “It remains our great desire to have live music, and we’re looking for that support.”
Musicians aren’t satisfied with that explanation. “Maybe they need to look a little harder,” says Joan Ceo, who has played the harp with the Ballet since 1958. The Metropolitan Washington, D.C., Federation of Musicians, whose members have accompanied the Ballet’s Nutcrackers in years past, has been demonstrating outside of the company’s Cleveland Park offices this season. They maintain the Ballet’s management hasn’t made enough of an effort to scare up the funds needed to pay for live music.
For whatever it’s worth, the demonstrators have shied away from typical picket-line rhetoric. Rather than calling for a boycott of the Ballet’s Nutcracker—which might have the effect of doing even greater damage to the company’s hard-hit bottom line—the musicians’ leaflets urge attendees to call the Ballet and “offer assistance, if you can, to return live music to The Nutcracker.”
All the same, you could forgive them for getting a bit more heated. In this cash-strapped season, many American workers have grown accustomed to being replaced by outsourced labor or high-tech algorithms. The Ballet’s regular Nutcracker players, though, are in the awkward position of being replaced by…a compact disc.
Hard-pressed to match artistic director Septime Webre’s unique production to an off-the-shelf commercial recording of Tchaikovsky’s score without making some serious (and copyright-violating) digital alterations, the company is instead using a mix of Nutcracker rehearsal tapes Webre used before joining the Ballet.
The union says the protests are purely informational. Dancers and stagehands have no-strike clauses in their contracts with the Ballet, so the musicians wouldn’t have the power to enforce a picket line were they to set one up, as striking dancers did in 2005. And the Ballet’s decision not to pay for musicians goes back to last year’s Nutcracker production.
So why raise a stink now? It’s a simple question of economics. Just as they are for stores like Best Buy, the holidays represent a make-or-break moment for ballet companies. And The Nutcracker is their universal cash cow. For The Washington Ballet, putting on The Nutcracker has brought in gross revenues of about $525,000 per week over the past four years—which amounts to about 20 percent of the Ballet’s total ticket revenue each year. This year, the company has added extra performances to try to close its budget gap. The Nutcracker costs The Washington Ballet $1.3 million for a four-week run—not including orchestra costs or overhead.
That’s the company’s most expensive production by far in terms of total cost: Other shows cost a bit more than a half-million dollars for one-week runs, says executive director Russell Allen.
Cuts to The Nutcracker are particularly dangerous, though, because it’s not like the Ballet offers the only Sugar Plum Fairies in town. This year there are no fewer than 21 Nutcrackers in the D.C. area, ranging from Momentum Dance Theatre’s Jazz Hip Hop Nutcracker to the Maryland Youth Ballet’s Mini Nut. The Washington Ballet’s debut is sandwiched between two other Nutcrackers by companies with greater renown and heftier budgets: Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet at the Kennedy Center and the Moscow Ballet at Strathmore.
The musicians’ union hopes that protesting at the highest-profile event of the season will either push Ballet management to reprioritize its finances, get the attention of a deep-pocketed donor, or both. You can learn a lot about the current state of fine arts in Washington by thinking over the fact that it is musicians—working artists themselves—who are mounting such a campaign.