Last November, for the third year in a row, the Sacramento Ballet came to Fresno with "The Nutcracker." The company followed up by returning to Sacramento for its usual marathon of December performances of the annual holiday tradition.
Then it almost died.
That's one reason why the Sacramento Ballet's return to Fresno is an encouraging sign. For the fourth time, the company will present "The Nutcracker" with the Valley Performing Arts Council.
"We just have to unite together to survive together," says Yukari Thiesen, the council's artistic director.
More than 110 local dancers from area dance schools will once again join with 37 dancers from the Sacramento Ballet this weekend.
It's one of three major "Nutcrackers" set for the holiday season. The Moscow Ballet's "Great Russian Nutcracker" will be performed 1 p.m. Sunday at the Hanford Fox Theatre. And the Central California Ballet, featuring guest artists from American Ballet Theatre II and San Francisco Opera Ballet, will perform Dec. 19 and 20 at the Saroyan Theatre.
Thiesen was aware of the Sacramento Ballet's shaky finances when it traveled to Fresno to perform last year. She has close ties with the company's artistic director, Ron Cunningham, a relationship that has resulted in a 10-year collaboration between the two organizations. Basically what it came down to, she says, is that Sacramento Ballet didn't sell enough tickets to "The Nutcracker" during its hometown run to keep the company going through the spring.
"Many ballet companies depend on the revenue from 'The Nutcracker' to make it through the season," Thiesen says. "When box office revenue for 'The Nutcracker' fails, survival is very difficult since many other productions do not generate enough revenue to cover their expenses."
The situation was a little brighter for last year's Fresno portion of the run, she says. Because the co-production with Sacramento was only in its third year, the Valley Performing Arts Council — which relies heavily on grants and donations to further its mission of dance education to local schoolchildren, including subsidizing 1,000 reduced-rate tickets for disadvantaged youths — had budgeted for deficits for the first five years until it establishes an audience.
"We lost money, but not so much that we'd go under," Thiesen says. In fact, attendance was a little better than expected considering the dire state of the economy, she says.
Sacramento Ballet wasn't as lucky. Cunningham made the decision to cancel the rest of the company's season but kept his dancers on the payroll. That kept the ballet together while the community rallied financially to save the institution.
While the Sacramento company's initial foray into the Fresno market was done for outreach purposes, it's turning out to be an important revenue stream. "You could say we help each other," Thiesen says.
The skittishness on the arts scene isn't likely to go away anytime soon. Diane Mosier, artistic director of Central California Ballet, notes that her company, which uses the same model of combining local dancers with professionals, is cutting ticket prices in half for children in an effort to fill more seats for the upcoming December production.
Mosier says that "The Nutcracker" is important for a number of reasons, including financially.
"Some years it gives us a cushion for the rest of the season, others it doesn't," she says.
But just as essential, Mosier says, is providing a sense of holiday tradition for audiences and developing young dancers.
"You start with these little bonbons and watch them grow up to be flowers and snowflakes. When these kids go off to college, they go through 'Nutcracker' withdrawal."
Great Russion Nutcracker
- Performance: 1 p.m. Sunday
- Location: Hanford Fox Theatre, 326 N. Irwin St., Hanford
- Tickets: $37.50-$99
- Details: (559) 584-7823, foxhanford.com
- Pro connection: The Moscow Ballet's 2009 Western tour stars principal artists Akzhol Mussakhanov and Ekaterina Bortykova.
- Local connection: none
- Highlight: The production includes life-sized puppets.
Central California Ballet
- Performances: 2 and 7:30 p.m. Dec. 19, 2 p.m. Dec. 20
- Location: Saroyan Theatre, 700 M St.
- Tickets: $20-$50, children half price
- Details: (877) 608-5883, livelyarts.org, ticketmaster.com
- Pro connection: Featuring guest artists from American Ballet Theatre II and San Francisco Opera Ballet.
- Local connection: The total cast of 90 includes children and adults from area dance schools and community theater.
Valley Performing Arts Council
- Performances: 1 and 7 p.m. Saturday, 1 p.m. Sunday
- Location: Saroyan Theatre, 700 M St.
- Tickets: $25-$65, $25 children
- Details: (559) 222-7100, ticketmaster.com, valleyperformingartscouncil.org
- Pro connection: The Sacramento Ballet returns for its fourth production of the holiday classic.
- Local connection: 114 dancers from 10 area dance schools will play supporting roles.
- Highlight: The Christmas tree is 60 feet tall, one of the tallest of any "Nutcracker" in the nation.