"People are buying a full-priced ticket, but only getting half of the product," explains violinist Patty Kurd of Local 161-710 (Washington, DC), referring to The Washington Ballet's production of the holiday classic The Nutcracker. During the month-long production, the Sugar Plum Fairy, the Mouse King, Clara, and countless other dancers will all be accounted for-the orchestra is the half that will be conspicuously missing.
Local 161-710 musicians have been hitting the streets to make sure the public knows what has been lost, and are also conducting a mass e-mail campaign to pressure the ballet company to rehire its orchestra.
For more than 30 years, The Washington Ballet has performed The Nutcracker each holiday season and, up until last year, the production always included a pit orchestra. After all, live music is an integral part of the ballet art form. But, in 2009, government funding that the ballet company had expected did not come through, and for the first time in its history, The Washington Ballet dancers performed The Nutcracker to recorded music. "We understood their situation; management said they would raise the funds, and they assured us they would return to using the orchestra this year," says John Cusick, president of Local 161-710. "But so far, that hasn't happened."
Live music for The Nutcracker is a Washington holiday tradition. "The kids always go down to the orchestra pit and ask the musicians about their instruments, and the musicians enjoy the give and take," says Cusick, who remembers taking his own now-grown children to the ballet when they were young. "This is a great loss for the community."
It is also a great loss for the dancers. In early November, The Washington Ballet put on a production of Romeo and Juliet, also danced to canned music, and a review in The Washington Post by respected dance critic Sarah Kaufman cited the loss of emotion that resulted from the absence of a live orchestra. "It was painfully clear how much [live music] matters in Romeo" Kaufman wrote. "Without a conductor to follow the dance, there were several moments where the timing was off, enough to cause a scene-ending double-take to fall flat because the dancer missed the music."
Cusick points out that, in addition, dancers are more prone to injury when live music is not used. "If the orchestra knows that a dancer is having difficulty, they can adjust the tempo to make it easier to get through the routine," he says. "An orchestra can make those necessary adjustments, but with canned music, you're stuck with what you've got, and that can be brutal."
The Washington Ballet dancers released a statement that read: "The experience of dancing this superb production of The Nutcracker without a live orchestra is an artistic loss to the artists and audiences of Washington, DC. We reach out to everyone who values the magic tradition of this holiday performance to help us get our live music back."
DC musicians are hard at work trying to make that happen. The campaign kicked off October 28 with a rally outside of ballet headquarters, and several local news stations provided coverage. In spite of cold weather and rain, freelancers and musicians from the National Symphony and Kennedy Center Opera House orchestras came out to rally for the cause, as well as representatives from the American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA) and the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), and other local labor groups. …