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Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The David H. Koch Nutcracker

-- by Tom Phillips

When New York City Ballet and New York City Opera jointly announced in 2008 that David H. Koch would donate 100 million dollars to renovate the New York State Theater, the opera called it a “transformative gift.”  The ballet said it would “ensure the integrity of George Balanchine’s vision for the theater ..for decades to come.”   Three years later, the renovation is complete.  But the opera company has left the building, now called the David H. Koch Theater, and Balanchine’s vision is in the dumpster.  Lincoln Center, conceived as a place where high culture would be available to the masses, is becoming just another exclusive haunt for the One Percent.   


I came to this realization a few days ago, as I set out to buy tickets for a family excursion to Balanchine’s Nutcracker.  This has been a family tradition since the 1960s, a holiday ritual that began at the box office in November.  At the New York State Theater, there was always a long line at the ticket windows, a New York social occasion.  People would chat animatedly as they waited, checking and re-checking a color-coded chart of seat availability.   Popular pricing was the rule, as it had been since the theater opened in 1964, when good seats were available for as little as 2 dollars.  Ticket prices crept up along with inflation over the years, but they were well below Broadway prices, and far below those at the Metropolitan Opera across the way.  My habit had been to buy half dozen tickets in the third or fourth ring, for something less than a day’s pay, and bring the family, along with occasional friends, relatives and neighbors, to an aesthetic feast that also served as an introduction to the art of ballet.  And I never went just once.  Besides the family excursions, I would go back for multiple looks at different casts.  In addition to  cheap seats in the fourth ring, the State Theater offered standing room for a few dollars.  Once the curtain went up, you could take any empty seat.            

Visions of Sugar Plum fairies were dancing in my head as I approached the theater last week, but this time, things were different.   There was no line at the box office.  The only other person was a middle-aged woman, a refugee from the Metropolitan Opera box office, hyperventilating over her discovery that opera tickets could cost $400.   

Things were nearly as shocking at the Koch box office.  When I inquired about seats in the third ring, the price quoted was $112 per ticket.  Expletive deleted.  Apologies to box office clerk, whose fault it wasn’t.  In a mild state of shock, I settled for just two seats in the fourth ring, at $91 each.   Further inquiries yielded the information that ticket prices begin at $29, but those $29 seats are not available for all performances, and when they are, they are just a very few of the worst seats in the house, with obstructed views or impossible sight lines.  I realized dimly that my family tradition is shot, there will be no more group excursions to the Nutcracker.   One final blow: inquiring about standing room, I am told it is no longer offered except when the entire house is sold out, something that had not happened in the season to date.        

A look at the NYCB website makes it clear that the company has adopted an opaque pricing system that treats its customers like airline passengers, withholding information and aiming to charge whatever the market will bear.  Prices are no longer openly published on the website; one must click on a date and a section of the theater to get a quote.  There is, however, an advertised special for the wealthy.  For $225 a ticket, NYCB now offers a large bloc of “VIP Sweet Seats”, front and center in the orchestra section.  These come with perks including a discount at the gift shop. 

All this may suit the one percenters, who don’t like to wait in lines and don’t care what tickets cost.  But it has a deleterious effect on the vision of Balanchine and Lincoln Kirstein, and the other founders of Lincoln Center.   In the mid-20th century, they set out to democratize the arts, and their success changed New York and America for the better.  In the 21st century their successors want to take the arts back for themselves and their children.  Their success will be the misfortune of the city, the nation, and the arts.   

A footnote to my own story: of the kids I brought to the Nutcracker over the years, three went on to study at the School of American Ballet, all three of them performed in the Nutcracker, and one went on to a career in ballet.   The point is not that I am a fine fellow for doing this, but that it was a natural result of Balanchine and Kirstein’s plan.  In order to build an American ballet company, they needed to put ballet on display for the broad public, and draw in future generations of dancers.  Balanchine’s Nutcracker, and the New York State Theater itself were made for that mission.   

The Nutcracker ballet is a vision of discovery.  It begins with children’s games of ring-around-the-rosy and leapfrog, proceeds through a family folk-dance, a magic show and a dream to a land of pure dancing delight, climaxing in a romantic pas de deux for a fairy queen and her cavalier.   To see it, especially as a child, is at least to dream of making that journey oneself.  Not to see it is never to know.   Most of NYCB’s dancers have not come from privileged backgrounds, but started out as kids who came, saw and took the journey.   What will the future hold if excursions to the land of sweets are limited to those who can afford VIP tickets?

Copyright 2011 by Tom Phillips