A live orchestra is generally thought of as a requisite for any national ballet company—or a regional company striving for national prominence, like The Washington Ballet—to be taken seriously. Musicians like Ceo note the flexibility of live orchestras in adapting tempos and volume to the demands of choreographers and preferences of individual dancers. With recorded music, dancers must adhere to an unwavering score, precluding any artistic license during the performance and increasing the danger of missed cues.
There is also a palpable interplay between the music and dance that is lost in a canned performance. “The magic of a staged work of art like opera or ballet is born of a collaborative creative process that continuously takes place between the dancers, the musicians, the designers, and the entire team as the spectacle progresses,” says University of Maryland musicology professor Olga Haldey. “This process, based on spontaneity and a continuous back-and-forth, is what gives theater both its ephemeral quality and its power.”
But all of this costs serious money. Even larger companies that budget for live music often skate by on the bare minimum. Tchaikovsky wrote The Nutcracker score for a 70-piece orchestra; until last year, The Washington Ballet had used an arrangement for 23 musicians. For contemporary pieces, many companies will get an OK from the composer before paying an arranger to whittle the score down to a fraction of its original.
This year, whittling may be insufficient. The recession has hit area performing arts groups hard: Last year the Maryland Chorus and Master Chorale went under and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s musicians accepted multiple pay cuts; several dance and theater groups are shortening their seasons and scaling back productions. Of all the Nutcrackers that will run before Christmas, only a handful—the Moscow Ballet, the Joffrey (which will be accompanied by the Kennedy Center’s Opera House Orchestra, conducted by Scott Speck, The Washington Ballet’s music director), and, surprisingly, the Manassas Ballet Theater—will have live accompaniment.
It’s the same story elsewhere: At the Atlanta Ballet last year, it was only an 11th-hour intervention from a wealthy donor that saved the company’s Nutcracker musicians from a similar fate.
Like so many of its colleagues, The Washington Ballet has seen its budget shrink. It was $8.5 million in fiscal 2008; this fiscal year, it was $8 million. The troubles go beyond the usual case of a deep recession biting into revenues. Last year, the D.C. Council canceled a $1-million grant the company had been receiving annually. The money was collateral damage of D.C. Council Chairman (and now Mayor-elect) Vincent Gray’s decision to eliminate all earmarks from the city’s budget—a change prompted by allegations that Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry steered earmarks to staffers and a girlfriend.
The shortfall took a big chunk out of the company. According to The Washington Ballet, ticket sales have been steady. But together with tuition for the Ballet’s dance school, they make up just half of the company’s revenues. The other half—$4.1 million before the earmark cut, according to their most recent 2009 tax forms–came from donations. Of this, a total of $2.6 million came from government grants. In addition to laying off musicians, the company has instituted two staff furloughs, a wage freeze, and eliminated one position (oddly, a major gifts fundraiser) while leaving other open positions unfilled.
The Ballet’s financial woes have resonated within Washington’s highest power circles thanks to Sen. Christopher Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat whose daughter plays a snow angel in the production. “I got in touch with Arne Duncan to see if the Department of Education could get some money for the musicians,” says Dodd, who attended Friday’s opening, and who will have a cameo role himself in the Dec. 24 performance. But the effort to access $250,000 from a Department of Education emergency fund fell through. He calls the musicians’ layoffs “unfortunate.”
The D.C. Council’s decision to rescind the earmark “created a tough situation for us,” says Espinoza, a situation that was revealed to musicians in the midst of renegotiating a three-year contract with them. The contract was never renewed. Musicians offered to take a 25 percent pay cut, but “they said they wouldn’t use us,” says 17-year Ballet bassoonist Eric Dircksen, “so there was no point going back to the table.”
The Ballet and the musicians disagree about how much the company is saving by axing live music: Executive director Russell Allen has said the added cost of live music for the Nutcracker would be $300,000; union president John Cusick says it’s closer to $200,000. Either way, it’s not a mammoth loss for the musicians. “It’s three weeks of work for a couple dozen people,” says Dircksen.