Tchaikovsky’s Christmastime juggernaut is the ballet world’s Marvel franchise that won’t go away. It’s a virus. An epidemic. Each year, more ballet companies get hooked on Nutcracker profits, and more money goes into re-imagining the Land of Sweets.
Denver-area arts groups have gone nuts for The Nutcracker. This year, there will be multiple traditional productions, including one from Moscow, a hip-hop take and a circus version. There will be a Nutcracker tea party, a ball, and a pizza fundraiser.
Sure, there are works by contemporary and underrated composers that dancers would die to perform. And Denver’s premier company, Colorado Ballet, takes on some of those — Ballet Masterworks and Tour De Force — when it’s not launching blockbusters like Don Quixote and Peter Pan to keep the lights on.
Yet come late November, Colorado Ballet’s focus is 100 percent Nutcracker, because no other production brings in the kind of crowd — or cash — it can produce. (The only one that has even come close is 2018’s The Wizard of Oz, which brought in around $1 million, just a third of the annual Nutcracker revenue.)
Back in 2016, the Colorado Ballet version of the production won a “Nutty," the annual Goldstar National Nutcracker Award that honors the most beloved Nutcracker in the nation. That’s an impressive achievement for a production using secondhand sets and costumes purchased from the San Francisco Ballet in 2005 and built in 1986, the same year the Challenger exploded and Lady Gaga was born.
Audiences might not notice, but the production design is tired. The outfits smell so bad they’re cleaned in vodka to kill the stench; duct tape, glue and prayers are all that’s keeping some set pieces together; and artistic director Gil Boggs, who joined the company in spring 2006, doesn’t know if it'll all last much longer.
So this year, Colorado Ballet — on the eve of its sixtieth anniversary in 2020 — has launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise $100,000 to pay for new sets and costumes.
Clearly, it’s time to freshen things up. But GoFundMe? That’s the fundraising site used by cancer patients without health insurance and families trying to ship a loved one’s corpse around the globe for proper burial.
Unlike the destitute and grieving, established arts nonprofits in the seven-county metro Denver area have a decent social safety net: the Scientific Cultural Facilities District, which manages a penny-on-$10 sales tax that funds cultural organizations. It delivered $900,000 to Colorado Ballet in 2019.
Why not use that money to build new sets and costumes? Or tap into the pockets of the Colorado Ballet’s wealthiest boardmembers? Or a corporate sponsor? Or a foundation like Bonfils-Stanton, which just awarded the Colorado Ballet a three-year, $180,000 grant? Why not just ask Boggs himself, who earned a $175,475-plus base salary in 2018, to pony up the $100K?
Because crowdsourcing donations does more than just raise money, says Adam Sexton, Colorado Ballet’s associate director of advancement. It also builds community engagement on social media and gives people a sense of ownership. And after researching options, Sexton says GoFundMe has the lowest credit-card fees among its competitors.
The organization's GoFundMe is hardly unique, he adds, pointing to other SCFD-funded cultural groups that have launched similar campaigns, like the Denver Zoo and the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. (Spokespeople from both groups deny that their organizations have used GoFundMe to raise money, though zoo staff did use the platform to support the family of a colleague who died unexpectedly this year, and DCPA ran a Kickstarter campaign to fund its experimental, immersive off-shoot, Off-Center, several years back.)
While $100,000 may seem like a big chunk of change, it’s a drop in the bucket of what the company says it needs to revamp its sets and costumes. “It’s [part of] a $2.5 million campaign to build these right,” says Sexton. “We already have a million dollars raised. Our GoFundMe is a $100,000 goal. It’s 1/25th of our goal for raising money.”
The ballet plans to buy new sets and costumes for the Nutcracker regardless of whether the GoFundMe campaign is successful. Boggs says the ballet expects the new sets and costumes — 300 costumes and five sets for each scene in The Nutcracker — to last three decades. It will all be manufactured in the United States, much of it locally, he adds, contrasting that with other companies that cut costs by exporting the manufacturing to other countries.
When the new sets are rolled out in 2020, don’t expect big changes to The Nutcracker, he says. The production will be as Victorian as ever.
“It’s what our audience loves. It’s why they come,” Boggs explains. “I’m very traditional, and I’m hard to change. It’s what The Nutcracker is — what it’s meant to be.”
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