No, The Nutcracker is not the nickname of a certain mobster with a penchant for hitting his victims below the belt. It’s the ballet by Tchaikovsky, replete with Arabians and Sugar Plum Fairies, and performed every holiday season in cities and towns throughout the land. For many of us, it is the only dance performance we will ever pay money to go and see, although whether we think of The Nutcracker as dance, or as spectacle associated with Christmas shopping, dressing up and Grandma, is open for debate.
In any event, word is there will be a new Nutcracker in town this season. This one will be coming here from Cincinnati, a production of the Cincinnati Ballet. The production is apparently intended to try and drum up interest in the idea of turning the Cincinnati Ballet into a regional company with Indianapolis serving as a kind of sister city.
Some people hope this scheme will serve to heal the cultural wound they believe was inflicted on our city by the indecorous collapse of Ballet Internationale two years ago. Perhaps you remember Ballet Internationale. It was originally called the Indianapolis Ballet Theatre. This was changed when IBT’s board hired a Russian, Eldar Aliev, as artistic director. Aliev, we were told, had been a great success in the Soviet Union, where ballet was the one artform generously supported by that totalitarian regime. For some reason, Aliev thought he could recreate this situation in Indianapolis.
Needless to say, things didn’t work out. The ballet’s board over-promised, Aliev over-spent and the company lived in a chronic state of financial crisis. This was a stressful state of affairs, made worse by Aliev’s penchant for blaming Indianapolis for not fully grasping the grandeur of his art.
This episode left local ballet lovers with an unquenchable longing. They can’t help themselves — they are forever smitten with this antique art and, like members of some overthrown royal family, have been dreaming of a time when ballet might return from its bitter exile.
It’s not as though the city has been totally bereft of ballet since Ballet Internationale went out of business. Ballet has soldiered on in the form of the Indiana Ballet Company, an initiative that rose from BI’s ashes, not to mention the city’s longest-running dance program, the Butler Ballet at Butler University (which, by the way, produces a Nutcracker of its own).
Evidently, for some, these offerings are not enough. They don’t rise to the level of professionalism that Cincinnati promises. The problem is that a partnership with the Cincinnati Ballet will cost local funders $2 million a year.
It’s said that the advantages of this deal are that it will make the Cincinnati company stronger by paying for more shows, which will, in turn, attract stronger dancers. That’s fine, but it doesn’t begin to explain what Indianapolis gets besides a season of perhaps four shows a year by a company that, when all is said and done, comes from … Cincinnati.
Some people spend a fortune on sports memorabilia, others can’t keep themselves from buying antique cars. If certain local arts patrons want to pay for ballet shows, that’s their prerogative. But before they start trying to enlist the aid of the big philanthropic funds and foundations, let alone public dollars, let’s get a few things straight.
A major failing of Ballet Internationale was the company’s inability to reach out to the community and actively engage with the city’s cultural life. BI’s failure to connect with the public meant the company never succeeded in building a popular audience. How will a company based in Cincinnati make up for this shortfall?
Unfortunately for hard-core fans, ballet is a waning artform. More articles are being written today about whether ballet can survive than about new young stars or exciting choreography. To build and sustain an audience in Indianapolis will require more than periodic reminders that ballet is good cultural medicine.
Finally, the notion that a professional ballet company is an essential ingredient for any city wishing to call itself a cultural destination is an increasingly dubious proposition. Ballet is an artform whose expense is out of all proportion to the size of its audience. The $2 million a year being proposed for partnership with Cincinnati would be better spent on the creation of an annual season aimed at introducing Indianapolis audiences to the varied and exciting forms of contemporary dance sweeping international arts capitals today, attracting new audiences, but hardly ever presented here.
According to NUVO’s Arts Guide, there will be no fewer than four productions of The Nutcracker offered in Indy this holiday season. Do we really need another?