Last year, just 10 days before one of the only in-person performances of “The Nutcracker” in Orange County was set to take the stage, another COVID-19 stay-at-home order was announced – interrupting yet another decades-long holiday tradition.

Festival Ballet Theatre, who had been preparing for the show on a makeshift proscenium stage on the Irvine Barclay Theatre loading dock, tried to keep the sugarplums dancing, but “The Nutcracker” of 2020 was destined for the small screen.

“We brought in all the props and backdrops and set up pods for the audience to sit safely, but everything closed and all we could do was Zoom again,” said Festival Ballet Theatre artistic director Salwa Rizkalla. 

This year, despite a looming threat of a new COVID variant, venues across the country are holding strong with their plans to present the ballet this December. 

“I think the audience will appreciate how dancers have pulled together this last year to keep art alive,” Rizkalla said. “Art is the face of the nation and our dancers feel very honored to share something so important with the community and to bring something that feels normal back again.”

‘The Nutcracker’ is a Right of Passage

Once a year, for every year except the year of the pandemic, ballet students from the smallest towns to the largest cities perform a version of the popular Christmas ballet to packed theaters. Although the production is a significant revenue generator (oftentimes a company’s entire year is funded by this seasonal show), the ballet also serves as a training ground for aspiring dancers. 

Students move up the ranks of characters from baby mice and angels, to soldiers and party scene children, tracking their technical advancement and performance development. Then it’s on to snowflakes and flowers and maybe one day the coveted Sugarplum Fairy. 

American Ballet Theatre principal dancer Skylar Brandt has performed in too many Nutcracker productions to count but is preparing for her 11th Nutcracker production with the ABT company — this time in a lead role tiny ballerinas dream of. 

“I have spent 11 years at ABT admiring this role, watching different couples take on the crazy, challenging pas de deux,” Brandt said in anticipation of her role as Clara, the Princess in ABT’s “The Nutcracker” at Segerstrom Center for the Arts. 

“I am so excited. And I think about the chance we all have to capture more and more hearts in the audience to love ballet like I do. I chose to do ballet because I watched a ballet, and the beauty of ‘The Nutcracker’ is that it hooks people because it is so magical and timeless.”

In ABT’s version of “The Nutcracker” by artist-in-residence Alexei Ratmansky, Clara, the Princess, replaces the iconic Sugarplum Fairy role, amending the story to include a Young Clara dreaming of herself grown up, dancing with the Nutcracker Prince.

Playing Young Clara in ABT’s rendition of the tale and just beginning her Nutcracker adventure is 12-year-old Brooke Treska. A student of the ABT William J. Gillespie School at Segerstrom Center, Treska said she is excited, and a little nervous to take the stage alongside the professional company.

“Being Clara is a big accomplishment,” Treska said. “And this is a really special Nutcracker because there wasn’t a performance last year and I’m looking forward to being back on stage.”

Treska will be joined by 47 other young dancers in ABT’s “T​​he Nutcracker” at Segerstrom.

Where to See The Nutcracker

American Ballet Theatre
When
: Various times Dec. 10-19
Where: Segerstrom Hall, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
Cost: $30-$188
Contact: 714-556-2787 or scfta.org

Festival Ballet Theatre
When: Various times Dec. 11-24
Where: Irvine Barclay Theatre, 4242 Campus Drive, Irvine
Cost: $35-$60
Contact: 949-854-4646 or thebarclay.org

Festival Ballet’s Narrated Nutcracker for Children and Families
When: 3 and 5 p.m. Dec. 4, 1 and 3 p.m. Dec. 5
Where: Huntington Beach Central Library, 7111 Talbert Ave., Huntington Beach
Cost: $10
Contact: festivalballet.org

Long Beach Ballet
When: Various times, Dec. 17-19
Where: Long Beach Convention & Entertainment Center, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach
Cost: $25-$60 for preview, $34-$78 for other performances
Contact: 562-436-3636, longbeachnutcracker.com

“After a year of virtual training, the ABT Gillespie students are ready to shine,” principal teacher and coordinator of the children’s division, Sarah Jones, said in a press release. “From virtual training to pods of socially distanced classes, to returning full time in the studios, the students have pivoted time and time again to ensure their training and health are both a top priority. This year’s production of ‘The Nutcracker’ will be even more spectacular because of the enthusiasm these young dancers bring to the performance. The students will truly be ecstatic to be on stage, no acting required.” 

A Spectacular Christmas Miracle 

It does not matter how many times you have seen “The Nutcracker,” it remains full of magic and festive spirit. The ballet has grown into a perennial favorite for viewers from every religion and background. From its 1892 premiere with the imperial ballet in St. Petersburg to now dominating America’s Decembers, “The Nutcracker” is one of the first examples of ballet entering into everyday life.

Long Beach Ballet’s artistic director David Wilcox, who is presenting the company’s 39th production of “The Nutcracker,” paid mind to this as he thought about how to entertain and engage the local community. 

“I like using the beauty of the classical art form of ballet, which has taken 500 years to develop to the level that it is today, to form a production that’s enticing and exciting,” Wilcox said. “It has pyrotechnics. It has magic. It’s got everything I can think of to make it thrilling. This production is not just for people who like ballet. You can hate ballet and you’ll still like this production.”

Despite the story transporting the viewer from Christmas parties to snow scenes and new worlds, there is an ordinary, human experience embedded in “The Nutcracker” that proves its staying power. 

“I love telling a story for the audience of today,” Wilcox said about the importance of keeping “The Nutcracker” tradition alive. 

“I’ve had this school for 41 years. It is not a job. It is what I live for,” Wilcox said. “We won’t have another year without ‘The Nutcracker.’ I won’t allow it and we’ll do what it takes.” 

Dancers in “The Nutcracker” from a past production by the Long Beach Ballet. Credit: Photo courtesy of Long Beach Ballet/Katie Ging

Though the pandemic still lingers, Wilcox’s company is looking on the bright side — his show’s slogan: “The intermission is over.”

And dancers are not the only ones who appear ready for the great pause in performances to be over. Festival Ballet and Long Beach Ballet each reported almost half of the tickets sold before Thanksgiving.

Brandt feels similarly about recent audience reactions to ABT’s live performances.

“I don’t think I have ever experienced audiences like we had during our fall season,” Brandt said. “People have been deprived of the opportunity to relish in art and culture and they are even more excited, even more appreciative, and even more engaged.

“It seems like a reminder that performance art isn’t something we should take for granted ever again.”

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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