Critic’s Notebook Dec. 2012 – Numbers and Nutcrackers


Amy Fitterer, Executive Director of DANCE/USA. Courtesy photo.

Amy Fitterer, Executive Director of DANCE/USA. Courtesy photo.

An unexpected visit from Amy Fitterer, Executive Director for Dance/USA, dovetailed nicely with recent announcements from the National Endowment for the Arts.

While nine NEA grants totaling $213,000 were awarded to San Diego County organizations, none were for dance projects. Most notably missing from the list was Trolley Dances which has been producing site-specific work along the tracks for 15 years.

The lack of awards for dance and the small turnout made Fitterer’s visit especially welcome, since the mission of Dance/USA is to unite members and advocate for dance in America.

Dance/USA is the only national service organization for professional dance, and unites hundreds of members from all genres, presenters, educators and individuals to secure a future for dance.  Its goal is to bring dance professionals and supporters together, and make sure that politicians, business leaders, educators and the public see the value of dance as an art form.

Fitterer, who works out of Washington D.C., made a quick stop in San Diego as part of a California tour. At the reception hosted by John Malashock, who is a Dance/USA trustee, she spoke passionately about the value of dance as a billion-dollar industry that supports jobs and promotes health and education.

She asked, “When was the last time all of you got together?  Never?  -well this was a ploy for you to meet me, but actually I want you all to talk to each other. “

Those attending included Malashock, Michael Mizerany, Artistic Director of Malashock Dance, Jean Isaacs and Blythe Barton of San Diego Dance Theater, Alan Ziter of the NTC Foundation, Martin Wollesen of ArtPower!, Janice Steinberg, author and dance writer, Spencer Howell and Mickey Mournath of Visionary Dance Theatre, Rob Appel of, and JoAnne Emery, Managing Director for City Ballet of San Diego.

Fitterer acknowledged that her visit was a last minute opportunity, and that while many in the dance community were invited via e-mail blasts and personal phone calls, only about 25 could attend on short notice, especially during Nutcracker season.  Still, it was indeed a rare chance to talk about the future of dance in a casual setting, at SCOUT, a unique store run in a former NTC home owned by Paul Scott. [php snippet=1]

citynut2No surprise, an effervescent Fitterer, who spoke flawlessly without notes, encouraged everyone to join the organization and attend its national conference held in New York on Jan. 11th. (Surely a long-shot for most in the San Diego dance community).

Key topics will include changing demographics and how that impacts what presenters put on stage. She also outlined how the organization tracks the budgets of 501-C-3 dance companies in America with budgets above $100,000.

“This number might sound small to you,” she said, but there are only 365 non-profit dance companies with budgets above $100,000.  That’s because it’s a very flat triangle in the dance field. We want to do more tracking, but because there are tons of unincorporated dancers, it is hard to track.  It sounds small, but when we look at the bottom of the triangle we’ll find the dance world is huge.”

Dance is also rebounding from the recession. “In 2009, the average company was ending with a deficit of about $2500,” she said, “and by 2011 dance companies were ending with a surplus of about $2500. This is very good news. Dance companies are spending more, and there is confidence. We’re also seeing dance companies making new works, but they are paired with well-known works and crowd pleasers.”

Dance/USA has a registered lobbyist on staff.  “We are the only organization with a lobbyist specifically for the field of professional dance on Capitol Hill,” she said. “We represent the field of dance before the White House, federal government agencies, and both the House and Senate.”

Fitterer said Dance/USA works with other non-profit agencies regarding tax reform discussions, and has set up a task force of doctors and practitioners who volunteer to screen dancers. “The task force is working to get information on dancer health,” she said.

There is a bounty of information available on the website, Fitterer inspired me to visit the site, and I grabbed several pocket advocacy cards with some fun facts:

– Not-for-profit arts are a $166.2 billion industry that supports 5.7 million jobs in the U.S.

– On any given day, 1.5 million Americans attends art performances in the U.S.

– According to the NEA’s study on the Arts and Civic Engagement, arts participants are twice as likely to volunteer, exercise, and engage in outdoor activities.

– Professional not-for-profit dance companies in the U. S. with budgets over $100,000 generate over $600,000 million in economic activity.

“When you run into someone you want to advocate, you can give them one,” she said.  “This is a vibrant community and there’s a lot of positive energy out there. I am hearing from people, ‘money is hard, but we’re just going to do it.’ Dance is always going to exist, and I thank you all for your hard work.”

Generous Gift

A very big thank you also goes out to Arthur and Molli Wagner for their generous donation of $2.2 million to support a self-sustaining Student Production Fund at the University of San Diego. If you’ve ever attended dance or theater performances on the campus, you’ve surely seen their names.  Past gifts have supported graduate fellowships, a faculty chair in acting, and of course the construction of the Molli and Arthur Wagner Dance Building. An existing building was also renamed the Arthur Wagner Theatre to honor him in 2008.

Arthur Wagner is a founding chairman of the theater department. He taught there for 20 years, starting in 1972. Now 89, he continues to mentor and inspire students throughout San Diego. He also continues to attend performances and meet new students. .

Holiday Nut

While we need more dance supporters like the Wagners, do we really need more productions of Nutcrackers?  Ask the bookkeepers and accountants who crunch the numbers and they’ll say yes.  The iconic ballet is the biggest money-maker for companies all over America. We are a “Nutcracker Nation.” If you doubt me, check out the excellent book by Jennifer Fischer, who traces its history from St. Petersburg in 1892 to pop culture as the most popular ballet in the world.

I hear a lot of grumbling about “The Nutcracker.”  A recent online rant declared that the San Diego productions are all the same.  I’ll paraphrase here –sets, music, costumes, choreography are all the same, and because so many people wear the costumes they stink.  Huh?  Not a word was mentioned about dancing technique, expression, musicality, theatrical variations, guest dancers, orchestras, special effects, amount of snow, or, whether they favored an adult Clara or child. Did they have a silly or scary Drosselmeyer? Tiny mice or giant rats and a grieving rat widow?  And how did they approach the Chinese Tea and Russian sections?  No mention of that either. Oh, wait – that was because the writer did not attend any of the shows.

Last year I reviewed the big three professional troupes – San Diego Ballet, City Ballet of San Diego, and California Ballet – all in a weekend.  It was sort of a dare. Yes, in other locales, there have been versions set in the 60s or Harlem, with hockey or hula, but I can assure you, the local productions are not all the same.  I find it disrespectful and lazy to lump them together, as each company works very hard to put its own stamp on the ballet.

“The Nutcracker” is a cultural experience that everyone should see at least once. Do a little homework about its transformation and you’ll enjoy it more. Ever heard of a guy named Balanchine? E.T. Hoffman? Think of it as an easy history lesson.  If there is a live orchestra, savor Tchaikovsky’s music, which is lovely. It’s far better live than jammed into TV in commercials. And most important, “The Nutcracker” is where many of the best dancers are hatched.

So stop grumbling. My recommendation is to check out the company websites and find one that meets your aesthetic and budget. And remember that by supporting the Nut, you’re supporting the company, and jobs, so maybe they’ll have a budget left for other new productions! By the way, I heard that Culture Shock, the gritty hip hop group, is planning a version of “The Nutcracker” for next year.  Perhaps it was their accountant’s idea.


California Ballet features the San Diego Symphony musicians.

City Ballet of San Diego features the City Ballet Orchestra.

San Diego Ballet.

San Diego Academy of Ballet.

San Diego Civic Youth Ballet.

Cast Academy of Dance.

Inland Valley Classical Ballet Theatre.

The Ballet Studio and Fine Arts Network Theatre Co.

Southern California Ballet.

West Coast Ballet Theatre.

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