Every fall, ballet dancers start gearing up for what will be a major part of their year: performing Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s classic 1892 ballet, “The Nutcracker.”
Sacramento Ballet, which has nine performances of “The Nutcracker” scheduled at SAFE Credit Union Performing Arts Center between Dec. 9-23, has an annual tradition of doing the show going back decades. The show is far from the only thing a company like the Sacramento Ballet does, but with its ticket sales, it can bankroll much of the rest of the year.
And Colby Damon doesn’t mind.
“For me, it’s not a chore,” says Damon, a longtime company member and worker. “I like the holidays. I like Christmas. I like the music — the music doesn’t get old to me. … I think that Tchaikovsky’s score is brilliant and beautiful, and the more I hear it, the more I hear new elements of it.”
A holiday tradition
When Damon came together two years ago to create new choreography for “The Nutcracker” with Sacramento Ballet executive director and artistic director Anthony Krutzkamp and two other longtime company members, Nicole Haskins and Julia Feldman, it was the latest rendition of a proud tradition in the capital city.
For decades, the company performed a version choreographed by longtime co-artistic director Ron Cunningham, who developed his version of the show in Boston. (Note: The author of this piece has been friends with Cunningham’s son Chris since childhood, knows the family well and is sometimes paid to watch Cunningham’s cat when he’s out of town.)
Cunningham’s show was locally famous in part for casting lots of children. Famed Hollywood director and Sacramento native Greta Gerwig was Clara one year growing up, though she’s just one of hundreds, if not thousands of people who had a part in “The Nutcracker” as a Capital Region kid.
Occasionally, too, well-known people would pop up in performances. Then-Sacramento Kings center Olden Polynice had a role in the mid-1990s dancing in the ball early in the show, drawing laughter from the audience by being able to effortlessly hoist one of the other dancers.
After Cunningham and his wife and co-artistic director Carinne Binda departed the company in 2018, their successor Amy Seiwert choreographed her own version of the show. When Seiwert left the company in 2020, after the ballet’s board of directors canceled its 2020-21 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Seiwert said her version of the show was “the thing I’m going to hold most dear.”
Now, Krutzkamp and company’s version of “The Nutcracker” will have its third year of performances. “I really want it to be Sacramento’s ‘Nutcracker,’” says Krutzkamp.
There are some differences with this version of the show; Damon says some of the music that Cunningham had in the second act is now in the first. Some people might also remember previous versions of “The Nutcracker” having dances for specific nationalities or parts of the world, such as the Arabian Dance.
“We moved away from nationalized dances,” Damon says. “We’ve decided that it just isn’t really necessary in this day and age. So we decided to just make them full characters and less representations of nationalities.”
But other parts of the show, such as what it does for the ballet’s bottom line, are all the same.
The financial side of ‘Nutcracker’
There was a telling moment at the time of Seiwert’s departure, when the Sacramento Ballet issued a press release acknowledging that having to cancel performances of “The Nutcracker” that year created an unworkable financial challenge for the company.
“The beloved holiday performance is the Sacramento Ballet’s single-largest source of revenue,” the release noted. “Without it, the company lacks the financial resources to support the season’s artistic and production staff, and facility costs, making it impossible to perform from January to June 2021.”
Three years on, this is still more or less how it goes for the company, with Krutzkamp acknowledging that “The Nutcracker” remains Sacramento Ballet’s biggest ticket seller each year.
Some of this is due to the fact that the company typically performs “The Nutcracker” throughout the holiday season at what is now the 2,100-seat performing arts center.
In terms of approximate revenue, “The Nutcracker” accounts for a large chunk of what Sacramento Ballet takes in in a year, which isn’t unusual in the dance world. Reuters noted in 2021 that 45% of New York City Ballet’s annual ticket sales were coming from its Nutcracker runs. Krutzkamp says Sacramento Ballet made over $1 million in ticket sales for its Nutcracker performances in 2022 and is on-track to make $100,000 more this year. Tax filings for the company, a nonprofit, show it had $3.67 million in total revenue last year.
Of course, “The Nutcracker” is maybe not the single thing that puts Sacramento Ballet in the black. Krutzkamp says the company also worked hard to develop a summer intensive program that’s grown to 120 students in recent years. Donor giving also remains critically important. Still, how “The Nutcracker” does each year can set the tone for much of the remainder of the season.
“I would say ‘Nutcracker’ is more about growing our budget than it is about being in the black,” Krutzkamp says. “Because if you think about it, you get halfway through the fiscal year and that’s ‘Nutcracker.’ Then you flip the fiscal year, and that’s the summer intensive.”
Damon understands the enduring popularity of “The Nutcracker.”
“Every ballet company does it every year because it’s an integral aspect of the holiday season,” Damon says. “It’s an integral aspect of a lot of the holiday tradition for people in the Sacramento area and people all over the world. So to be a part of that and to help craft that is really special.”
Correction November 29, 2023: A previous version of this article stated that the Sacramento Ballet’s “The Nutcracker” would run Dec. 9-13. It will run Dec. 9-23.
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