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For ballet dancers young and old, one thing signifies the start of the holiday season more than anything else: “The Nutcracker.”

Usually, family audiences would be crowding theaters across the county this time of year, anxious to see the familiar story of a girl’s journey to the Land of Sweets. But as we all know, 2020 is not usual, even when it comes to age-old traditions.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to canceled performances of “The Nutcracker” across the country where you could typically see at least one version in every state. Clara, the Sugar Plum Fairy, the Rat King, and all that make up the production have become an institution and the void experienced by audiences around the world is tenfold for dancers and theaters. 

“Young dancers miss being in performance and watching the production take shape,” said Anaheim Ballet director Larry Rosenberg, whose school has done a “Nutcracker” every year for the past 32 years. “Dancers miss this chance to repeat and grow in a new role. To challenge themselves and improve technically and artistically.”

In order to keep its dancers in top condition, Anaheim Ballet has been holding its dance classes outside during the coronavirus pandemic.

The annual “Nutcracker” marathon plays a huge role in the development of ballet dancers year-to-year. It becomes a resume, of sorts, as performers move through different roles from childhood on to a professional career. The ballet offers dancers a chance to learn different characters and styles while also providing a platform to show off their skills and impress a company director.

“A dancer’s life is very short,” said Festival Ballet Theatre founder and artistic director Salwa Rizkalla. “For them, one year is like 10, because by 40 or 45 you are retired. These students have been dancing all their life. For them, it is like air and food. If you take a whole year out while they are young you are taking too much out of their lives.”

This cancellation of tradition follows a lackluster training season that started in March. Classes went online and students began taking ballet in their kitchens and living rooms.

“It’s very sad. Devastating. They cannot even jump in their houses. They can’t leap and can’t jump and now can’t perform,” Rizkalla said. “This is your profession and you cannot do it.”

But “The Nutcracker” is more than a rite of tradition. Canceling this quintessential holiday event eliminates a major and reliable source of revenue for dance companies. In the U.S., a ballet company’s performance of “The Nutcracker” can generate up to 48% of the overall season revenue, according to Dance/USA’s most recent “Nutcracker Survey.” The holiday ballet is not only a tradition but a lifeline for most ballet companies who use the proceeds from the event to support productions later in the season.

The Virtual Stage

To try and make up for the “Nutcracker”-less holiday season, many companies are taking their productions online. American Ballet Theatre (ABT), which normally performs several nights of Alexei Ratmansky’s “The Nutcracker” at Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, is instead offering a unique virtual performance of the Grand Pas de Deux for Clara and the Prince. 

Hee Seo and Cory Stearns, center, in the American Ballet Theatre’s “The Nutcracker.”

Filmed in early November at New York City’s Highline Hotel, the video features ABT principal dancers Isabella Boylston and James Whiteside.

“While we are unable to come together to perform ‘The Nutcracker’ at Segerstrom Center in Southern California as we do each year, we are delighted to carry on ballet’s beloved holiday tradition with this spectacular film,” said ABT artistic director Kevin McKenzie in a press release. “Alexei’s brilliant choreography and ABT’s renowned dancers, combined with the latest digital technology, bring Clara and the Prince to life on screens large and small in a way they’ve never been seen before. I’m so proud to be able to share this holiday gift with our fans around the world.”

This special presentation premiered on Dec. 4 on ABT’s YouTube and Instagram channels and can be viewed through the end of the month on Segerstrom’s website at https://videos.scfta.org/.

Video is also how Rosenberg’s Anaheim Ballet participated in Anaheim’s annual tree lighting ceremony. This came as a replacement to the company’s usual performances at the Grove Theater in Anaheim, Don Laughlin’s Riverside Resort in Nevada, smaller pop-up performances at the Anaheim Packing House, and with the Pacific Symphony.

“Health trumps ‘Nutcracker’ every day, we all respect that. Not having ‘Nutcracker’ is saving lives, so of course, we’ll do it, but it doesn’t negate how incredibly important the arts are,” Rosenberg said. “So now we have to think about what ‘The Nutcracker’ brings to people each year and try to deliver that in other ways, in class, virtually, however, we can support the community.” 

Planning Performances

As every performer and theater questions when and how we will return to “artistic normal,” arts leadership is considering all of its options — experimenting with socially-distant seating, live-streaming, and drive-in venues.

“I don’t think we’ll ever go back to normal, so we need to figure out new ways of experiencing the arts,” said Jerry Mandel, president of the Irvine Barclay Theatre. “For 30 years the Barclay was a building that put on great shows. I want to flip that and remind everyone that what we do is put on great shows; it doesn’t always have to be in this building. The core of the business is shows, not a building.”

Dancers of Festival Ballet Theatre’s “The Nutcracker.”

The Irvine Barclay Theatre, which has presented Festival Ballet Theatre’s “The Nutcracker” for over a decade, worked with Rizkalla to create an outdoor stage for the 2020 “Nutcracker” performance. By using the loading dock as a stage, and having patrons buy tickets in social-distant pods of six, the reality of a live performance seemed real. FBT was scheduled to present a one-hour version of “The Nutcracker” Dec. 19-23, but it has been canceled as of December 10th.

Mandel said he has only ever experienced something drastic enough to pause society one other time after the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S. At the time, he was president of the Orange County Performing Arts Center, now called Segerstrom Center for the Arts.

“Everyone was canceling everything, and I had jazz pianist Dave Brubeck scheduled to perform in a couple of days. I told myself that we need music now more than ever,” Mandel said. “And let me tell you, I think every person who bought a ticket came.”

The rollback of restrictions is just one of many hoops arts organizations have had to jump through this year, further proving the stress on the industry and projecting that more difficult decisions are to come in the new year. 

Segerstrom Center for the Arts had a “Nutcracker Tea” event planned that was scheduled to take place outdoors on the plaza when outdoor dining was still allowed. This was a reimagination of the event that was to take place in the concert hall. 

“We’re getting used to being flexible,” said Segerstrom Center for the Arts president Casey Reitz as he prepares to pivot again to a virtual version of the event. 

“There is the financial part of it and the morale part of it. These events are so much the center of the holiday season, and they have just evaporated,” said Reitz. 

Reitz said that what makes this all even harder is the fact that there are no guidelines from the state about live performance.

“We see the attention that other industries are getting so they know in different tiers what they will be allowed to do,” Reitz said. “The lack of information presents a huge problem because we don’t know how to plan. Although we have taken actions to improve the safety of our guests with clean air purifiers, touchless fountains and faucets, we are waiting for guidelines from the state.”

Seventy-five percent of Segerstrom’s income comes from ticket sales, so without events, they are counting on donations to help them continue their educational programs and limited performance offerings. 

Reitz said large Broadway shows and dance company performances are not likely to return until the fall of 2021 and even then, it is not clear how comfortable people will be sitting shoulder-to-shoulder in a theater, or how much of the 3,000-seat theater can be sold for proper social distancing.

“We have been lulled, in some ways, into this new normal,” Reitz said. “But there is something about seeing a pas de deux, beautiful and well done when you are only 20 feet away from the stage. And I think that is the silver lining because we will remind people of the importance of what we do. People will come back, we just have to be patient.”

Kaitlin Wright is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. She can be reached at kaitline13@gmail.com.

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