"I estimate that there are about 400 American ballet companies that operate with a serious degree of professionalism," said John Munger, director of information services for Dance USA, to The Sunday Oklahoman. "My guess is that out of those 400 companies, probably 375 do a Nutcracker every year." The ballet has become a matter of financial survival for many dance companies. Ballet Arizona draws half its yearly revenue from the show, and Ballet Oklahoma faced a public outcry when it attempted to substitute It's a Wonderful Life two years ago. Even Houston Ballet, which has developed a national reputation for its original shows, depends on Tchaikovsky's holiday tale for 15 percent of its annual income.
"The Nutcracker is extremely important to Houston Ballet's annual revenue, and although not entirely dependent upon it, without The Nutcracker, things would certainly be very different," says managing director C.C. Conner, who admits that the only major company he knows of that doesn't regularly put on productions is American Ballet Theatre, simply because it doesn't have a home theater available during the holidays.
The Nutcracker "is a particularly American phenomenon," Conner says. "It does not occur in Europe. I think that's because North American companies are much more dependent on earned income." (European theaters get only 10 percent of their budget through ticket sales, while the box office accounts for about 45 percent to 65 percent in American theaters.)
The Tchaikovsky virus seems to have infected the smaller companies as well: The Clear Lake Metropolitan Ballet's version runs December 1 through 10, Friday through Sunday, at Bayou Theatre, University of Houston - Clear Lake, 2700 Bay Area Boulevard. For tickets, $16-$22, call (713)629-3700. BalletForte's runs Saturday and Sunday, December 9 and 10, at 7:30 p.m. at Cullen Performance Hall, University of Houston. $10-$15. What's more, you can have a spot of tea with little Clara herself and other folks from BalletForte's cast on Sunday, December 3, from 3:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. $15. For tickets to either the tea or the performances, call (281)277-5735. For those who like their tights the height of a one-story building, Moody Garden's IMAX Theatre puts those dancing sugarplum fairies on the big, big screen Sunday through Thursday at noon and 3 p.m., and Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m. For more information, call (800)582-4673.
Despite the competition, Houston Ballet doesn't act like its cash cow is threatened. Of course, it doesn't hurt that these smaller groups can't hope to match the ballet's production values. But here's an interesting fact: Conner has noted a leveling of profits in recent years as competition from other entertainment outlets increases. "Everybody figured out that the holiday market is good revenue," Conner says.
Perhaps the ballet needs to dispatch an army of nutcracker soldiers against the competition?