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You can’t quite say that there was absolutely no live music at last weekend’s opening performance of The Washington Ballet’s lavish annual production of The Nutcracker. On the streets outside the Warner Theatre on Friday night, a horn ensemble was playing a holiday medley, complete with selections from Tchaikovsky’s Christmas favorite.

As for the rest of the musicians who ordinarily accompany the holiday spectacle, they were engaged in other pursuits: As theater-goers filed in, a half-dozen of them were busily passing out leaflets critical of the 66-year-old ballet company, which this year will put on the holiday classic with a cast of over 400 dancers, a few local celebrities—and, for the second season running, exactly zero musicians.

What went wrong? Live music is one thing that separates the nationally prominent companies from the local also-rans among the 21 Nutcrackers on this year’s holiday arts calendar. In every year but one since 1974, The Washington Ballet had counted itself among the former contingent, engaging orchestra musicians to play as the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier dance on stage.

But this year, a lousy national economy and some tumultuous local politics have gotten in the way: With philanthropic donors tightening their belts and the D.C. Council engaged in a jihad against earmarks like the one that previously helped subsidize the company’s music budget, the Ballet slashed its live orchestra budget for the season. “We’d love to have musicians there,” says the Ballet’s director of artistic operations, Arthur Espinoza. “It remains our great desire to have live music, and we’re looking for that support.”

Musicians aren’t satisfied with that explanation. “Maybe they need to look a little harder,” says Joan Ceo, who has played the harp with the Ballet since 1958. The Metropolitan Washington, D.C., Federation of Musicians, whose members have accompanied the Ballet’s Nutcrackers in years past, has been demonstrating outside of the company’s Cleveland Park offices this season. They maintain the Ballet’s management hasn’t made enough of an effort to scare up the funds needed to pay for live music.

Washington Ballet’s Director of Artistic Operations Arthur Espinoza (Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

For whatever it’s worth, the demonstrators have shied away from typical picket-line rhetoric. Rather than calling for a boycott of the Ballet’s Nutcracker—which might have the effect of doing even greater damage to the company’s hard-hit bottom line—the musicians’ leaflets urge attendees to call the Ballet and “offer assistance, if you can, to return live music to The Nutcracker.”

All the same, you could forgive them for getting a bit more heated. In this cash-strapped season, many American workers have grown accustomed to being replaced by outsourced labor or high-tech algorithms. The Ballet’s regular Nutcracker players, though, are in the awkward position of being replaced by…a compact disc.

Hard-pressed to match artistic director Septime Webre’s unique production to an off-the-shelf commercial recording of Tchaikovsky’s score without making some serious (and copyright-violating) digital alterations, the company is instead using a mix of Nutcracker rehearsal tapes Webre used before joining the Ballet.

The union says the protests are purely informational. Dancers and stagehands have no-strike clauses in their contracts with the Ballet, so the musicians wouldn’t have the power to enforce a picket line were they to set one up, as striking dancers did in 2005. And the Ballet’s decision not to pay for musicians goes back to last year’s Nutcracker production.

So why raise a stink now? It’s a simple question of economics. Just as they are for stores like Best Buy, the holidays represent a make-or-break moment for ballet companies. And The Nutcracker is their universal cash cow. For The Washington Ballet, putting on The Nutcracker has brought in gross revenues of about $525,000 per week over the past four years—which amounts to about 20 percent of the Ballet’s total ticket revenue each year. This year, the company has added extra performances to try to close its budget gap. The Nutcracker costs The Washington Ballet $1.3 million for a four-week run—not including orchestra costs or overhead.

That’s the company’s most expensive production by far in terms of total cost: Other shows cost a bit more than a half-million dollars for one-week runs, says executive director Russell Allen.

Cuts to The Nutcracker are particularly dangerous, though, because it’s not like the Ballet offers the only Sugar Plum Fairies in town. This year there are no fewer than 21 Nutcrackers in the D.C. area, ranging from Momentum Dance Theatre’s Jazz Hip Hop Nutcracker to the Maryland Youth Ballet’s Mini Nut. The Washington Ballet’s debut is sandwiched between two other Nutcrackers by companies with greater renown and heftier budgets: Chicago’s Joffrey Ballet at the Kennedy Center and the Moscow Ballet at Strathmore.

The musicians’ union hopes that protesting at the highest-profile event of the season will either push Ballet management to reprioritize its finances, get the attention of a deep-pocketed donor, or both. You can learn a lot about the current state of fine arts in Washington by thinking over the fact that it is musicians—working artists themselves—who are mounting such a campaign.

A live orchestra is generally thought of as a requisite for any national ballet company—or a regional company striving for national prominence, like The Washington Ballet—to be taken seriously. Musicians like Ceo note the flexibility of live orchestras in adapting tempos and volume to the demands of choreographers and preferences of individual dancers. With recorded music, dancers must adhere to an unwavering score, precluding any artistic license during the performance and increasing the danger of missed cues.

There is also a palpable interplay between the music and dance that is lost in a canned performance. “The magic of a staged work of art like opera or ballet is born of a collaborative creative process that continuously takes place between the dancers, the musicians, the designers, and the entire team as the spectacle progresses,” says University of Maryland musicology professor Olga Haldey. “This process, based on spontaneity and a continuous back-and-forth, is what gives theater both its ephemeral quality and its power.”

But all of this costs serious money. Even larger companies that budget for live music often skate by on the bare minimum. Tchaikovsky wrote The Nutcracker score for a 70-piece orchestra; until last year, The Washington Ballet had used an arrangement for 23 musicians. For contemporary pieces, many companies will get an OK from the composer before paying an arranger to whittle the score down to a fraction of its original.

This year, whittling may be insufficient. The recession has hit area performing arts groups hard: Last year the Maryland Chorus and Master Chorale went under and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s musicians accepted multiple pay cuts; several dance and theater groups are shortening their seasons and scaling back productions. Of all the Nutcrackers that will run before Christmas, only a handful—the Moscow Ballet, the Joffrey (which will be accompanied by the Kennedy Center’s Opera House Orchestra, conducted by Scott Speck, The Washington Ballet’s music director), and, surprisingly, the Manassas Ballet Theater—will have live accompaniment.

It’s the same story elsewhere: At the Atlanta Ballet last year, it was only an 11th-hour intervention from a wealthy donor that saved the company’s Nutcracker musicians from a similar fate.

Like so many of its colleagues, The Washington Ballet has seen its budget shrink. It was $8.5 million in fiscal 2008; this fiscal year, it was $8 million. The troubles go beyond the usual case of a deep recession biting into revenues. Last year, the D.C. Council canceled a $1-million grant the company had been receiving annually. The money was collateral damage of D.C. Council Chairman (and now Mayor-elect) Vincent Gray’s decision to eliminate all earmarks from the city’s budget—a change prompted by allegations that Ward 8 Councilmember Marion Barry steered earmarks to staffers and a girlfriend.

The shortfall took a big chunk out of the company. According to The Washington Ballet, ticket sales have been steady. But together with tuition for the Ballet’s dance school, they make up just half of the company’s revenues. The other half—$4.1 million before the earmark cut, according to their most recent 2009 tax forms–came from donations. Of this, a total of $2.6 million came from government grants. In addition to laying off musicians, the company has instituted two staff furloughs, a wage freeze, and eliminated one position (oddly, a major gifts fundraiser) while leaving other open positions unfilled.

The Ballet’s financial woes have resonated within Washington’s highest power circles thanks to Sen. Christopher Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat whose daughter plays a snow angel in the production. “I got in touch with Arne Duncan to see if the Department of Education could get some money for the musicians,” says Dodd, who attended Friday’s opening, and who will have a cameo role himself in the Dec. 24 performance. But the effort to access $250,000 from a Department of Education emergency fund fell through. He calls the musicians’ layoffs “unfortunate.”

The D.C. Council’s decision to rescind the earmark “created a tough situation for us,” says Espinoza, a situation that was revealed to musicians in the midst of renegotiating a three-year contract with them. The contract was never renewed. Musicians offered to take a 25 percent pay cut, but “they said they wouldn’t use us,” says 17-year Ballet bassoonist Eric Dircksen, “so there was no point going back to the table.”

Union President John Cusick (Photograph by Darrow Montgomery)

The Ballet and the musicians disagree about how much the company is saving by axing live music: Executive director Russell Allen has said the added cost of live music for the Nutcracker would be $300,000; union president John Cusick says it’s closer to $200,000. Either way, it’s not a mammoth loss for the musicians. “It’s three weeks of work for a couple dozen people,” says Dircksen.

What’s at stake instead is the direction that the Ballet and other performing arts groups will take should musicians be seen as a nonessential expense. The Washington Ballet seems to be gambling that after a few years, people will get used to canned music and keep coming, with the days of pit orchestras fading to a distant memory. But they may not get away with it: Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post critic Sarah Kaufman eviscerated the company’s production of Romeo + Juliet last month for timing mistakes she attributed to the use of recorded music.

But for a company on the rise like The Washington Ballet, this is a step backward. The Ballet’s rise from dance school to the area’s leading ballet reflects a history of outsized ambitions. Its founder, “Grande Dame of Dance” Mary Day, was a local legend, establishing the Washington School of Ballet in 1944. Within a decade, her amateur troupe was touring internationally with Alicia Alonso. In 1976, it became a full-fledged dance company, with salaried musicians and dancers, winning competitions and accolades from D.C. to Moscow.

The Ballet’s prominence has increased significantly since Septime Webre took the artistic helm in 1999. The Cuban-American brought The Washington Ballet to Havana in 2000, the first U.S. ballet company to visit since 1960. At home, he instituted DanceDC, The Washington Ballet’s arts education program with area schools, which aims to cultivate a local talent pool of young dancers. He has staged large-scale interpretations of classic works, from A Midsummer Night’s Dream to this year’s Great Gatsby, typically bounding on stage before performances to introduce the Ballet’s latest production with the wide-eyed excitement of a child or a religious zealot.

The plaudits have fed ever more lavish stage shows and education programs: This year’s Nutcracker involves more than 400 dancers; under director Kee Juan Han, Ballet school enrollment increased from 50 to 650 since 2007. These gains make the budget woes all the more troubling for audiences and students alike. At best, The Washington Ballet will continue to make painful cuts while it struggles to get back in the black. At worst, their trajectory could look like that of area choruses, among them the Master Chorale, which weathered the recession by transforming from fully professional to semiprofessional or semi- to all-volunteer groups.

For Webre, the Ballet’s retreat to canned music is unpleasant—and, he hopes, temporary. “I want to perform to live music,” he says, adding “it’s quite admirable that the message of the musicians is for audiences to support the Ballet.”

But with no leverage over a company that has already deemed them expendable, the musicians can do little more than busk for the Ballet. What remains to be seen is if the layoffs are a sign of things to come for The Washington Ballet in other areas, and if they set a precedent for other performing arts groups.

Ceo recalls playing Nutcrackers with then-Washington School of Ballet and the National Symphony Orchestra at Constitution Hall in the 1960s, back when D.C. was a cultural backwater. “From the beginning, Mary Day always insisted on live music, that was the tradition. And I’m sure she didn’t have lots of money.”

As Webre acknowledged with a show-of-hands at the Warner Theatre on Friday, The Nutcracker is many people’s first and only exposure to ballet. For Ceo, the holiday performance is a unique opportunity to connect with audiences, especially young children who venture to the orchestra pit after performances.

However, it’s difficult to predict whether audiences will place the same importance on live orchestras as the critics and musicians. In the end, time may prove that for regional ballets, the future is on CD.

“The Ballet has improved tremendously over the years, and is definitely headed in the right direction,” Ceo says. “But let’s face it, it can never be more than a regional company without live music.” >