The Nutcracker at Madison Ballet Credit: Courtesy of the artist

For most, the holidays mean food, family, festivities, and fits of reckless acquisition. But for ballet dancers, Thanksgiving is the last supper before the marathon of merrymaking that is The Nutcracker, which first flopped in 1892 Russia only to become a seasonal sensation in 1950s America. More than two dozen productions of the annual phenomenon exist in the Chicago area alone, ranging from extravagant and spectacular to DIY and Dance Along, ensuring that the magic of Christmas is broadly allied with the ritual of dance. The story of a sensitive girl who journeys to the Kingdom of the Sweets with a magical nutcracker has become synonymous with innocence and nostalgia. However, for the ballet industry, The Nutcracker more accurately represents another middle-class value: work. Annual ticket sales account for an average of 48 percent of a company’s season revenues, and some dancers have reported that Nutcracker gigs represent a third to a half of their annual freelance income.

Nutcracker is a production that helps support the rest of the season—it’s the bread and butter,” says Sara Schumann, a Chicago-based labor lawyer and the artistic director of the Madison Ballet. Originally from New Jersey, Schumann performed with the Lyric Opera of Chicago, the Chicago Tribune Charities Fund production of The Nutcracker, and Ohio Ballet. Perceptive and reliable, Schumann was selected by choreographers to help stage work in addition to performing in it, eventually becoming ballet mistress at the Lyric.

Schumann was also the leadership choice of her peers: in her first year dancing at the Lyric, she was elected by her fellow dancers to serve as their union delegate as the shop negotiated a four-year agreement. “That was how I met the AGMA [American Guild of Musical Artists] attorney, Barbara Hillman,” recalls Schumann. “She was wonderful. I watched her in these negotiations, thinking, ‘This seems kind of fun.’ I was interested in how the contracts worked and how negotiations worked. I realized that I like to read the contracts, but most people did not.” And with this knowledge, Schumann made sure dancers and choreographers understood and benefited from their agreements. She continued to serve as the opera shop delegate even during periods she was dancing with Ohio Ballet, a nonunion company. “They needed somebody there to represent their views,” she says.

In 2005, after several years as ballet mistress at the Lyric Opera, Schumann decided to pursue an education that would allow her to directly advocate for the rights of dancers and other workers, piecing together credits from courses she had taken at Wilbur Wright College, Oakton Community College, and the University of Akron (“I figured, I’m there [at Ohio Ballet] without my husband; I might as well get some classes”), as well as any credits she could muster from her professional experience to complete an undergraduate degree at Northeastern Illinois University by 2006. She earned a law degree in three years from Chicago-Kent at IIT, attending part-time as she raised two sons. And with her dancer’s work ethic, Schumann continued her career in the arts, setting the movement in Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera at the Houston Grand Opera during her first year studying law. (“The fee was going to cover my first semester,” she says. “I had to tell my legal writing professor I couldn’t be there but I would be writing on my laptop.”)

After nine years as a labor attorney, Schumann found herself once again approached by artists in search of leadership when Madison Ballet’s artistic director retired and a small group of dancers from the company encouraged her to apply for the position. “It’s not every day that somebody says, ‘Come be our artistic director,'” she says. “It’s been an honor and a joy for me, and it’s an opportunity to give the dancers a really good work environment.” Under her direction (and with the help of revenue provided by The Nutcracker), Madison Ballet has seen remarkable growth, including moving to new studios and partnering with the YMCA and the public library in outreach programs for children and people who have been through the criminal justice system. In June, the company hired theater and opera director Jonathan Solari as CEO—the first in its history—and they’ve also embarked upon a $1 million capital campaign.

But finding financial footing isn’t the only goal for Schumann. “Primary for me has been making it a good experience for the dancers. You have to come to the rehearsal room with respect for the artist. Their life as a dancer is so short, and we need to be doing work that is going to be worthy of their time. It’s not just about money—it’s about getting your horizons broadened by the people you work with.”  v