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The Magic, Money-Making Powers of The Nutcracker

That so many companies reap a box office bounty may be the true Christmas miracle.


Dollars spent by the California Ballet
on The Nutcracker

If you drop by Del Mar Ballet on a Saturday afternoon, you might catch a rehearsal for the dance school’s second full-length production of The Nutcracker.

“Run, run!” co-founder Muriel Teague exclaims on one such Saturday as a group of young women, ages 12 to 18, practice the “Waltz of the Flowers,” accompanied by a CD of Tchaikovsky’s famous music. 

“We don’t want any draggy flowers,” she tells the budding ballerinas. They practice the steps until they move quickly and gracefully, like a dancing bouquet. 

Similar scenes are playing out around the county in preparation for this year’s dozen-or-so Nutcracker productions. Why so many? The Nutcracker is a holiday favorite. It’s also the biggest moneymaker in the ballet world.

The Nutcracker can make or break a professional company,” says Thomas Teague, who launched Del Mar Ballet with his wife in 2009. “It’s the bread and butter of ballet.”

Last year’s Del Mar Ballet production broke even. The Teagues think the upcoming version, budgeted at $20,000, may do even better. They’re hoping the two performances on Dec. 21 at California Center for the Arts, Escondido, will clear as much as $5,000, alone.

This mom-and-pop shop believes in being economical. Thomas built most of the sets; Muriel sewed many of the costumes. They’re longtime local teachers who have danced professionally, and they share credit as choreographers. 

Both of their daughters dance. Nicole, 25, is a member of Milwaukee Ballet and her sister Emily, 18, portrays The Nutcracker’s heroine, Clara, whose magical adventures are the basis of the ballet. Dad, meanwhile, is Drosselmeyer, the mysterious figure who gives Clara her beloved nutcracker. And nearly every performer in the 70-member cast is a student at Del Mar Ballet, where it typically costs $200 to be in the production.

“In a few years, The Nutcracker will be profitable for our school,” says Muriel. “It’s an investment and it’s very enriching for our students.”    

The stakes are especially high for City Ballet of San Diego, California Ballet, and San Diego Ballet, three professional companies that present The Nutcracker

The biggest and oldest San Diego-based production comes from California Ballet, which has staged full-length Nutcrackers since 1971. This year’s version is budgeted at $485,000. The company hopes to profit almost $140,000 from the 10-performance engagement that opens Dec. 17 at downtown’s Civic Theatre, with the San Diego Symphony in the orchestra pit.  

“We sell so many tickets that it helps get us through the year and it supports other productions,” explains spokesperson Diane Grosman. She adds that California Ballet’s “Sharing the Art Program” donates tickets to children and adults who might not otherwise experience such performances. 

San Diego Ballet also expects The Nutcracker to be a box office champ.

A total of nine performances (six in the San Diego area and three on tour in Billings, Mont.) are scheduled for the company’s 22nd Nutcracker season, starting Dec. 3. Budgeted at roughly $60,000, the series is expected to clear about $20,000.

For City Ballet, the financial path has been rockier. The economic downturn hit the company particularly hard, causing a 40 percent drop in Nutcracker ticket sales in 2008. 

“It was horrible—we’re still recovering from that,” says managing director JoAnne Emery. 

The good news is that the turnaround has begun. Cautiously optimistic, City Ballet has boosted the number of public performances for its 17th Nutcracker season from 8 to 11 at downtown’s Spreckels Theatre, beginning on Dec. 9.  

What makes the production so important is that it pretty much pays for itself through ticket sales. That makes it possible to use money that has been raised through grants and donations to help fund other City Ballet performances that are artistically worthy but less popular. 

“We’re sometimes asked why we keep doing The Nutcracker,” Emery says. “It’s because people like it and it keeps selling tickets.” 

Only a nut could crack the logic in that. 

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