Why "Nutcracker" season is so important

It's mid-August, hot, humid, and not one leaf has changed from green to red. Earlier this week, I was sitting on my couch, shirtless, sweating to save a few bucks by leaving our A/C off when, within 30 minutes, I received a work related phone call and email checking my December availability. Even the heat of summer can't melt the flurry of action towards kicking off yet another Nutcracker season. I would like to pretend that it is not going to happen, but in all honesty, this holiday classic is the most important time of the year for me and most other freelancers.

I have been performing the dreadtastic Nutcracker since I was "Fritz" at the age of 9. I've performed every male role possible from a mouse to the cavalier to "Drosselmeyer." For 8 years, dancing with big companies, I performed between 38 and 45 shows of this production a season (not including tech/dress rehearsals). I've progressed from love to excitement, to misery, delirium, and plain apathy over this production. Although Nutcracker is far from the most thrilling time of my freelancing season, like it is for most professional companies, it is a lifeline to survival over the rest of the year.

I can't name one major ballet company in the US that doesn't perform Nutcracker annually. This quintessential holiday classic is the "bread and butter" of most companies, funding dancer salaries and repertory productions for the rest of the season. Millions of people have made Nutcracker as much a tradition as watching the Macy's Thanksgiving day parade, Black Friday, and watching A Christmas Story on TBS on Christmas day. This tradition may be confusing for many, but it is the biggest breadwinner by far for most, if not all, companies. Not surprisingly, this marketing gem has trickled down to schools, film productions, and beyond. Demand for dancers explodes and this is where freelancers come in.

When I danced with Pacific Northwest Ballet, we usually started preparing for Nut around mid-November. This gave us about a week and a half before we were onstage. The first year any dancer prepares this Nutcracker is always daunting. Every year after that is old-shoe (unless learning a new part). I was quite surprised this past June when I received my first phone call for Nutcracker season. We hadn't even reached the peak of summer and the ballet world was already channeling Christmas. Though I'm not completely booked for Nutcracker yet, I already know what my November to Christmas looks like. Ridiculously busy.

Like ballet companies, Nutcracker season is necessary for the survival of freelancers. Where a dancer may receive a smaller salary during other parts of the season, they can make more than double that during Nut. This season can allow a dancer to pay off that credit card they use to pay for classes, save for taxes they couldn't put away because they needed the cash for rent, put away for some down-time to rest their body, or to take a desperately needed (and rarely afforded) vacation. When work can be scarce and harder to find during other periods, throughout this season there is often such demand for dancers that they need to reach out to their freelancing network to help companies and schools fill their casts. For part-time freelancers that have full-time company jobs, this period can be a chance to try out plum roles that they wouldn't get to dance with their home companies.

Nutcracker season can get old and repetitive for dancers, but this production has inspired many of us and many future dancers to start training. The ballet world is lucky to have this over-polished gem to assist us throughout the year. With its charm and cheer, it makes the holiday season the most lucrative time of the year for freelancers. Honestly, without Nutcracker, American ballet may very well be dead. And without the benefits that it brings to freelancers, most of us would not be able to survive for much of the year without it.

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