'Tis the season when otherwise normal people think seriously of dallying with fairies and living toys in the Sugar Plum Kingdom.
That, at least, is the theory among most classical dance promoters. There's such a seasonal appetite for Tchaikovsky's "The Nutcracker," they say, that it guarantees a big box office every time.
Once upon a time, that may have been true. But in recent years, producing the holiday favorite has become a financial gamble.
In the midst of a dismal period for classical dance in Southern California, resident companies and a few touring groups--from the Joffrey Ballet to the Channel Islands Ballet--are optimistically staging versions of the 102-year-old chestnut.
One of the most elaborate, the Los Angeles Classical Ballet production, opened Friday at the Terrace Theater in Long Beach, complete with 140 dancers, half a dozen headliners including prima ballerinas Cynthia Harvey and Evelyn Cisneros, a live horse and a 60-piece orchestra.
"When we do it, we do it full-out," says David Wilcox, artistic director of the group. "The Nutcracker" runs through Sunday at the Terrace, then moves to the Pasadena Civic Auditorium Dec. 22-24.
The $750,000 production is the only one of the year for the struggling Long Beach-based dance group, which once aspired to be the resident dance company of the Los Angeles Music Center and the Orange County Center for the Performing Arts.
Like other dance groups in Southern California, the Los Angeles Classical is only a true "company" during the six weeks it takes to rehearse and stage a ballet. It has six permanent employees, none of them dancers. "We're as permanent a company as you get (in Southern California)," Wilcox says.
Like others, the Los Angeles Classical's "Nutcracker" is the company's only chance this year to bring in some significant revenue. Despite the ballet's popularity, dance companies have discovered, the payoffs are not guaranteed. Two years ago, the company's "Nutcracker" broke even instead of producing an expected $300,000 in revenues.
"The sales were just not there," says Louis Skelton, former board chairman, who added that the production made money last year. Some recent productions of the classic by other companies have lost money, dance professionals say.
To compete with television and other forms of entertainment, Wilcox says, ballets have to aim for the spectacular. "Our audience has to be blown away by spectacular balletic feats, dazzling scenery, fantastic music," he says.
With no standing corps of dancers, putting together a "Nutcracker" is something like raising an army from scratch in four weeks--complete with front-line soldiers, reserves and logistics units.
In the days leading up to opening night, the company's headquarters on Wardlow Road percolated with so much activity that the walls seemed to bulge outward.
Production manager Monique L'Hereux and staff worked their way through an hour-by-hour schedule of essential tasks, from "add lights and spots" to "dry-ice rehearsal" (for fog and dream scenes). A squad of sales operators handled ticket orders, which came in at a greater pace than last year, they said. Carpenters were dispatched to a warehouse to pick through huge scenery panels, repaint sets and repair props.
And in three big rooms with mirrored walls, dancers rehearsed.
The Napoleon for this dancing army is Wilcox, the usually unexcitable artistic director, an energetic man with pale blue eyes and receding sandy-gray hair.
"The objective here is that the dancers are so well-rehearsed that at no time during the ballet do you see them fumbling or tripping," he said.
Two dozen dancers at that moment glided and spun through a Tchaikovsky waltz under the hawk-like gaze of ballet mistress Julia Ellis. There was a measure of fumbling and tripping, as well as a few near-collisions and, at the end, some gasping for breath.
Then, the dancers listened to a rambling critique from the London-born Ellis, concluding with an appeal for more precise technique.
"Girls, quite a few of you are doing bent-kneed \o7 chainees\f7 ," Ellis said, referring to a standard turning movement. "Work on this." She pointed to her own slightly bent knees, which she straightened with deliberate movement and a grunt. "Eh! Straighten those legs!"
Wilcox's company was born in 1982 as the Long Beach Ballet. In 1991, seeking to give the organization a broader regional base, he renamed it the Los Angeles Classical Ballet. Those were flush times for the company, which had performances of "A Midsummer's Night Dream" and "Coppelia" under its belt and planned an ambitious 36-week season.
But late in 1991, the company began experiencing funding problems. According to former board chairman Skelton, the problems began with the region's recession and defense cutbacks, which prompted large-scale layoffs at McDonnell Douglas, Long Beach's largest employer, and elsewhere. Suddenly, people had less money to spend on show tickets, he says.