September 1, 2020
In the unending flood of performance cancellations around the world, there was hope for one major exception locally, and now even that is gone. San Francisco Ballet’s month-long Nutcracker, a holiday fixture in the Opera House since 1944, will not take place this year, as COVID-19 is keeping the War Memorial Opera House closed.
It’s unknown at this point what online substitutions may yet be offered. “San Francisco Ballet experienced a record number of people — over one and a half million — streaming and accessing content as part of the SF Ballet @ Home platform created shortly after the San Francisco shelter-in-place order closed our performance venue,” says SFB Executive Director Kelly Tweeddale.
“We are exploring options and working with our artists and our digital archives to see what might be possible. Being able to continue the Nutcracker tradition, especially in a digital environment, would be an apt reflection of our community.”
The importance of the Nutcracker tradition in the SF Bay Area is a compelling fact both for the community and the company as millions of children have received their first dance — or any classical music — experience from the dear old Tchaikovsky chestnut. Major American ballet companies are said to generate about 40 percent of their annual ticket revenues from Nutcracker holiday blitzes. A rough calculation for San Francisco shows that it’s also true for the company that started it all.
With 23 San Francisco Ballet performances before Christmas and eight more after, that’s 31 x 3,126 (number of seats in the War Memorial), yielding a maximum of 96,906 seats filled. Assuming — based on experience — full houses at most shows, and taking the $39 to $348 price range into consideration, the Nutcracker provides a significant contribution to the company’s income stream that could conceivably amount to as much as a third of its annual budget.
SF Ballet’s current version of the Nutcracker, by Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson, was created in 2004, and it’s set in San Francisco during the 1915 World’s Fair — the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. Because of the large cast and so many performances, some 200 dancers are participating in the run, the production presents an impossible challenge for social — or any — distancing.
Not yet announced, but reasonable to expect, the cancellation may also prompt yet another change in the on-again off-again schedule for the major construction project in the War Memorial of replacing hundreds of the theater’s 3,126 seats.
Ongoing since 2013, the $3.7 million project already replaced balcony seats, but left undone is the replacement of 1,174 orchestra, 274 grand tier, and 596 dress circle seats, along with the creation of new accessible-seating areas. The last change was from May–August 2021, to a year later, but now the Nutcracker cancellation may move the project up to this winter.
Nutcracker statistics are overwhelming: every dancer on SF Ballet’s roster dances in the production, and SF Ballet School contributes more than 160 students to perform Clara, Fritz, snowflakes, waltzing flowers, party children, bugs, soldiers, mice, and more.
“I know it is a great disappointment for the students not to be able to perform in Nutcracker,” says SF Ballet School Director Patrick Armand. “It is such a wonderful opportunity for them to perform on stage with the Company, and something that our School families look forward to as part of the holiday celebration each season. At this time, we must put their health and well-being as the first priority, but we will look forward to being back together in our beautiful theater when we can.”