Sustaining a professional ballet company isn't easy; which is why the Universe spawned "The Nutcracker." Companies count on the annual production to drive a majority of season ticket sales by attracting a family audience who typically wouldn't attend a ballet otherwise, but see "Nutcracker" as a holiday staple.
For Los Angeles Ballet, its original production of "The Nutcracker" represents about 73% of the company's total annual budget. "We wouldn't be here without it," said Thordal Christensen, the company's co-artistic director. "For any ballet company it's a critical production."
Christensen and co-artistic director Colleen Neary first introduced their original, Southern California-inspired "Nutcracker" to local audiences when they launched in 2006 as Los Angeles' only professional grade ballet company. Since then, the company has stuck to a strategy of bringing dance to the various pockets of Southland communities, rather than performing in one centralized venue.
With its 7th annual production of "The Nutcracker," Los Angeles Ballet is expanding its reach from three to five venues and from nine to 13 performances across Southern California.
In addition to the Alex Theatre (Glendale), Royce Hall (UCLA) and Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center (Redondo Beach) where the company has previously performed the holiday favorite, audiences can now see Los Angeles Ballet's original production of "The Nutcracker" at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center (Long Beach) and Valley Performing Arts Center (Northridge).
According to Neary and Christensen, they've seen a steady increase in repeat ticket buyers tied to the regional venues, which speaks volumes in a town inundated by "Nutcrackers" from various local ballet schools and sometimes, other visiting professional companies.
"We recognize the same audience from past performances buying tickets again [for The Nutcracker"]," Neary said. "We're really building local audiences at these venues and they're coming back to see us."
With sets designed with Los Angeles flair by local designer Catherine Kanner and costumes originally created by Mikael Melbye, theirs is a production that speaks to the traditions and multicultural make-up of the region.
"We wanted to do a locally inspired 'Nutcracker' as our commitment to becoming part of the fabric of the city," Christensen said. "It's set in 1912 in LA. That was the starting point."
Christensen and Neary sat down with Artbound to talk about how their production is uniquely Southern California and their vision for the future of the company.
Tell us about Los Angeles Ballet's "Nutcracker" and how it's different?
CN: Our "Nutcracker" set was designed by local artist Catherine Kanner and reflects Southern California. The very first thing the audience sees is the scrim with two angels that represent "The City of Angels." The first act of the party scene takes place in a Spanish-style home in Southern California. Outside instead of snow there's Bougainvillea, and the trees you see are taken from Sierra Nevada range in the wintertime.
Act 2 takes place in the "Land of the Dolls," which come to life when Clara dreams about them. Her favorite doll is a life-sized Nutcracker. Other versions typically happen in the "Land of the Sweets."
In this scene, our background is like a Southern California beach where you can see a boat and water in the background. It's a scene taken right out of Santa Monica.
Has "The Nutcracker" always been such a traditional ballet to perform during the holidays?
TC: It's interesting with "Nutcracker" because every company in America does it every year, which is a tradition that George Balanchine started with the New York City Ballet in 1954. Now companies in Europe are starting to do it as well. It's a powerful tool for selling tickers but also a very powerful tool to get people interested in ballet because it's a family show.
CN: It was done in Russia originally [in 1892 with choreography by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov] but not in Europe. It's definitely not a tradition there the same way it is in America. They typically do it in the summer in fact!
Given the Los Angeles landscape, it seems pretty smart to bring ballet to different pockets of the community, especially with "The Nutcracker." Are you engaging new audiences and cultures with this strategy?
CN: We are. We had been performing "The Nutcracker" at three different venues in the past for (Alex, Redondo Beach and Royce) and we built up a local audience in each venue. It's something that's worked so well for us that this year we're performing in five (Carpenter Theater in Long Beach, and the new Valley Performing Arts Center).
TC: It's all about having people come back. You've got to have a great
product that people are going to want to see. And there's not a lot of [regional] crossover. People in Redondo Beach don't go to the Alex Theatre for example. That idea of engaging the local audience is working very well.
What's your barometer for success?
CN: We have repeat ticket buyers and ticket sales have gone up in returning venues. We've seen ticket sales increase steadily over the past six years and they are the same audiences we recognize from past performances. It's working for us because we're wedding ourselves to the different communities, and people don't like to drive a long way.
TC: Originally we also thought that when people come home from a long day at work, they're not going to want to get back in their car and sit in traffic for another hour and half. In six years, traffic has only gotten worse!
When you offer something like "The Nutcracker" which is a very traditional piece, do people embrace that even if they were not brought up knowing what "The Nutcracker" is or having part of their holiday tradition?
CN: We always say we want to make our tradition, their tradition. So it's all about marketing it and selling it in a way appeals to all ages and audiences. This is not a production specifically for ballet audiences. It's a whole theater piece that people will come and enjoy. And once they see it, they want to see more. I've had people come and say, 'I've never seen a ballet or "The Nutcracker" before and I want to come back and see your other productions.' It's all about educating the audience about what we're doing and hopefully having them return.
TC: "The Nutcracker" is a perfect ballet for people even if they're not used to going to the ballet.
I hear you might begin to do some touring?
TC: If we could. There's a lot of coordination and finances to work through to make it feasible. We might do something at Grand Park at the Music Center and we're also performing at the L.A. County Holiday Celebration this year. We're trying to reach out.
CN: Dance is really booming here; there are a lot of different things going on. It's great because there are a lot of different audiences for it. That's good for all of us.
What should we expect from Los Angeles Ballet in five years?
TC: Hopefully we'll be here and be a bigger company doing more performances in more theaters in more places, and maybe touring. It's important that when you're a young organization, you have flexibility. When you're established the less flexibility you have.
Since we started we've grown 275% in budget. I don't think many non-profit arts organizations can say that in this economy. So that's our goal - to grow another 275% in the next 5 years!
CN: We've also grown to 35 dancers from 22 dancers when we started. I think doing full length, bigger ballets also helps our audiences to recognize us. But it's all about funding and I know we're moving in the right direction.
To purchase tickets for Los Angeles Ballet's "The Nutcracker," please visit www.losangelesballet.org or call 310-998-7782. Performance dates include:
Dec. 1, 7:30pm
Dec. 2, 2:00pm
Carpenter Performing Arts Center
Dec. 8, 7:30pm
Dec. 9, 2:00pm
Royce Hall, UCLA
Dec. 15, 1:00pm Dec. 15, 5:00pm
Dec. 16, 1:00pm Dec. 16, 5:00pm
Valley Performing Arts Center
Dec. 22, 7:30pm
Dec. 23, 2:00pm
Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center
Dec. 29, 1:00pm Dec. 29, 5:00pm
Dec. 30, 2:00pm