Each year at this time comes an impish Nutcracker to delight children - and hopefully provide Madison Ballet with 25% of its gross annual income.
It's the holidays, when people part with most of their annual arts dollars to enjoy pops concerts, A Christmas Carol and sing-alongs to Handel's Messiah. The money gathered via populist December programming is slowly disbursed the rest of the year, making this a critical time for performing arts groups.
For Madison Ballet's Nutcracker, looking out for the bottom line means that for the first time in decades, dancers will perform to recorded music, instead of live symphonic accompaniment.
"The good thing about recorded music is that you know what you will get; the bad part about recorded music is that you know what you will get," says artistic director W. Earle Smith. "Dancers have to make sure that their performance is always fresh."
That's just the most obvious sign of a leaner troupe, however. Last winter Madison Ballet cut two staff positions and scuttled two productions. This season the company is doing only two productions, The Nutcracker and Cinderella, instead of its usual three or four.
But there's also good news for Madison Ballet's $1.06 million budget: The Wisconsin Arts Board granted the company $25,000 in federal stimulus money. The troupe hopes to restore one of its full-time positions later this year. As for corporate fundraising, "Everything has been pretty comparable to last year," says Valerie Dixon, the company's executive director.
Yeah, but last year sucked.
"You can't look at it that way," she says. "You have to look at it as, 'Are companies still supporting you?'"
Traditional fundraising wisdom is that donors give on the basis of relationships. Dixon's point is that the relationships are continuing, even in tough times, and even if the dollar amounts are smaller. She says the continuing trust is based merely on the company's honesty; it's been up-front about difficulties and tough solutions.
She also credits her business-savvy board. As soon as there were signs the economy was in trouble, they took action.
"We did not wait for the bottom to open up," says Dixon. "We started to anticipate very far into the future, at what would be the most difficult situation and how it was we were going to manage it. We never took the situation lightly."
As for cuts to this year's Nutcracker, says Smith, "While live music is my preference for any production, the beauty of ballet is not defined by it."
Madison Ballet's The Nutcracker, Overture Hall, Dec. 18 (7:30 pm), 19 (7:30 pm) & 20 (2 pm)