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Business of the Arts: The Nutcracker

Classical ballet is economic engine for Springfield Ballet

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Most of the events that comprise the plot of “The Nutcracker” happen in a dream – a pitched battle between toy soldiers and mice, dancing candies in a land of sweets, the dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.

For many who first saw the ballet as children, the performance itself becomes the stuff of dreams and part of the enduring beauty of the holidays: They hear a scrap of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s score while shopping and are transported.

This year, for the 38th season, the Springfield Ballet Inc. will perform “The Nutcracker” on the proscenium stage of the Landers Theatre, with six performances set Dec. 15-18. Executive Director Abigail Lind said tickets were already 78% sold a month before the first curtain rises.

Ticket prices range $23-$33, with an at-home streaming option available for $60. Beginning last year, the show also streams to The Moxie Cinema, where audience members can enjoy the show in the more casual and familiar movie theater setting for $15 – popcorn optional.

Nationally, the 1892 two-act classical ballet – set on Christmas Eve – is a holiday tradition for many ballet companies. A 2017 survey by ballet service organization Dance/USA found “The Nutcracker” was bringing in 48% of companies’ overall season revenues.

In 2022, the local production brought in $84,000, Lind said, through season- and single-ticket sales, and sponsorships. Besides the grand scale of the production, which this year has 125 cast members – up from 111 in 2022 – last year’s show cost $31,000 to mount. That’s slightly less than the spring show, “The Wizard of Oz,” which tallied $32,000 and made up the other half of the two-production season for the company.

Mounting the show
Though “The Nutcracker” is a sprawling production with a lavish set, the Springfield Ballet doesn’t have to pay annually for set pieces and costumes.

“We own the entire set – all the costumes and all the backdrops,” Lind said. “It’s Springfield Ballet property, but we do have to pay to store it in a temperature-safe place. It would not be good if we went to unroll our Christmas tree and it was all funky colors.”

Lind said prior to the show, she recruits as many dance parents as she can to pull the set and deliver it in the Springfield Regional Arts Council Inc. truck to the Landers stage.

“We shift it to the Landers stage in coordination with whenever they close their last December production,” she said.

This year, that’s also a Christmas show: “Elf: The Musical,” offered by Springfield Little Theatre on Nov. 17-Dec. 3.

From the dismantling of the “Elf” set to the delivery of “The Nutcracker” pieces, there’s not a lot of time for rehearsal on the Landers stage – the only place with enough space for all of the dancers to practice together, Lind said.

The company pays Springfield Little Theatre $310 per day for four rehearsal days, and rent for the ticketed performance days totals $3,110. SLT does not charge the company for lighting, and the Ballet hires its technical director, Chuck Rogers, for both of its shows. Lind said the Ballet’s partnership with SLT is a valuable one.

She noted that “The Nutcracker” is a very hands-on endeavor. Prior to the show, a team of parents gathers in the board room of The Creamery Arts Center, home to the Ballet’s headquarters, under the direction of Emily Walley, education programs coordinator. There, they work to adapt the costumes to fit a new round of bodies, making temporary adjustments, like adding beading and gussets, and doing the kinds of repairs that a series of very physical performances and a year of storage make necessary.

The Ballet has six full-time staff members and a team of instructors – its website lists 10 – and for “The Nutcracker,” which features cast members as young as 6, it’s all hands on deck, Lind said.

Alexandra Olson is office administrator and an instructor for the Ballet, and in “The Nutcracker,” she has a role as an Arabian coffee candy in the land of the sweets. (Editor’s note: Olson is also the daughter of Springfield Business Journal’s editorial vice president, Eric Olson.)

Olson said she has been performing in “The Nutcracker” since 2011, missing only 2021, her senior year of high school.

“It’s just a classic tradition,” she said. “You look forward to it every year.”

This year, she is looking forward to sharing the pleasures of performance with her students.

“Dancing and especially performing gives me a feeling that you really can’t get anywhere else,” she said. “It keeps you coming back.”

Maria (Hall) Velazquez is performing this year in her third stint as the Sugar Plum Fairy.

Velazquez is an alumna of the Springfield Ballet, and said she has been dancing for 25 years, starting in the Sugar Plum Fairy role six years ago, when she was a senior in college.

“Last year, I worried about being older, but this year I’m not as nervous,” she said. “When you’ve danced for as long as I have, you don’t have to think about some of the technical things that kids have to think about. My muscle memory is so engrained that the break doesn’t matter – I can think more about the artistry and the story.”

Economic driver
Dance/USA figures show attendance at performances of “The Nutcracker” nationwide is consistent from year to year, with large metro ballets bringing in an average of 36,000 in 2008 and the same number in 2019. The average highest ticket price has grown, however, from $103 to $157 in the same period.

For many ballet companies, the largesse provided by “Nutcracker” audiences supports its other activities through the year.

The Springfield Ballet relies on income from shows and from its classes – there are currently 220 students, the most ever, according to Lind – to support some of its community programs. Those include Dance Chance, which teaches dance in 21 Title I elementary schools in the city, and Star Steps, a program that bridges students from Dance Chance to the preprofessional classes, Lind said.

A peek at the Springfield Ballet’s ledger shows a positive financial picture: In 2022, projected revenue was $103,000, but the organization brought in performance revenue of $140,000, including grants, sponsorships and tickets. Show expenses in 2022 were projected at $60,000, but Lind ended at $75,000.

Most of the $65,000 surplus went directly into savings, as Lind says the Ballet needs more space.

“We’re currently operating with 220 in four studios, and there’s just not enough room for all those dancers,” she said.

An expanded facility is needed for the organization, which will turn 50 in 2026. Led by the Springfield Regional Arts Council, it is working with Paragon Architecture LLC to build a property or reconfigure The Creamery, ideally within five years, Lind said. She added at least six studios are needed.

“We’re actively looking at what this can look like for the Springfield Ballet,” Lind said.

The large company of dancers in “The Nutcracker” is Lind’s favorite thing about the show, she said.

“Sometimes, when you’re in a situation where you have a bunch of students and professionals dancing, you see the divide,” she said. “What you get here is a sense of connection. You get an amplified experience of what the dance community looks like – with no divide.”

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