Arts Desk

For Now, Live Music Returns to Washington Ballet’s Nutcracker

The Washington Ballet is bringing live music back to this year’s Nutcracker, thanks to a $250,000 gift by philanthropist Adrienne Arsht. The donation, reported by the Washington Post Tuesday and announced by TWB yesterday, ends a two-year layoff for Ballet musicians prompted by financial difficulties—most painfully, a million-dollar funding cut by the D.C. Council. As I reported in a December 2010 cover story, jobless musicians were reduced to busking on the sidewalk outside the Warner Theatre last winter during performances, petitioning passers-by for donations so that the Ballet would hire them back.

They got their wish: According TWB artistic director Septime Webre, Arsht approached him after seeing last year’s Nutcracker, saying she wished that young dancers and audience members could experience the holiday staple with a live orchestra, and asked how much that would cost. Her check comes at a fortuitous moment, as the Ballet plans an all-out production for its 50th anniversary as a company.

“It’s a lovely thing to happen” says Joan Ceo, a retired harpist who had performed Nutcrackers with the company since 1958, when it was the Washington School of Ballet. She admits being surprised by the news, though rumors abounded: “I know they’ve been talking about the possibility, but they wouldn’t name names.” Musicians’ union president Ed Malaga says he only got word of the gift Tuesday. Not coincidentally, the Washington Ballet and the musicians’ union signed a contract the same day. Ceo explains the company made it clear that if the musicians would agree to the Ballet’s terms—which included a pay cut the musicians had offered before, when the Ballet first announced layoffs—TWB would promise to hire them. Ceo is hoping to fly down from her home in Rhode Island to perform again this year.

But finances are still tight, and so while the contract is for the next three years, it only guarantees work for this year’s Nutcracker. Webre says he is “thrilled that Adrienne Arsht has given this great gift to the Washington Ballet and to the city,” adding that live music is a priority of the company this year.  He notes that live music will be present for the entire run of TWB’s productions this season of The Great Gatsby and Alice in Wonderland. However, whether musicians are hired back for any future production is contingent on the Ballet’s revenues, currently on the upswing. “There’s no guarantee of work,” explains bassoonist Eric Dircksen. “We’re all happy to go back to work, but disappointed there’s no security. But to tell you the truth, we didn’t have it before.”

“We’ve always been 100 percent supportive of the Washington Ballet and the top quality productions they put on,” says union president Malaga.  “I’m hopeful this will be a framework not only for the Nutcracker but also for the Washington Ballet as a whole.” But both parties are aware that money will determine if the Ballet’s newfound commitment to live music extends beyond its 50th anniversary season.

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