The Sugar Plum Fairy and Cavalier are done with social distancing.
Tchaikovsky’s beloved The Nutcracker is back at ballet companies across the country after COVID-19 restrictions cancelled nearly two years of live dance performances. And while the core story remains the same – after a raucous holiday party, a young girl is whisked off to a magical land by her new nutcracker doll, who is revealed to be a prince – many companies have altered their productions. Uncle Drosselmeyer won’t be wearing an N95 mask, but the pandemic and accompanying societal shifts are affecting how the show must go on.
Ever since North American companies began staging versions of The Nutcracker in the 1940s, many supporting roles have been played by children. Since COVID-19 vaccinations were not available to Canadians under 12 when rehearsals began, few young performers are participating this year. Also in play: A global push to address racial stereotypes in ballet, such as the potentially problematic “Arabian” and “Chinese” dances in The Nutcracker’s second act. Many productions are creatively navigating all of these shifts by axing entire scenes, introducing new choreography or both.
Ballet companies have a lot riding on these 2021 holiday performances. According to Dance/USA, a service organization that includes Canadian members, The Nutcracker accounts for 48 per cent of the average company’s annual ticket sales. From 2008 to 2019, total performances of the holiday favourite increased by roughly 30 per cent in the United States and Canada, and ticket prices doubled. There is so much financial dependence on The Nutcracker, researcher Shakira Segundo wrote, “that the pressure to remain profitable and relevant is now more imperative than ever.”
Here’s a look at how three companies are navigating changes so the December tradition can continue.
National Ballet of Canada
The Nutcracker has long been a family affair for the National Ballet’s Tanya Howard. Since her 2007 promotion to first soloist, she’s danced many of its leading roles, including the Snow Queen and the bee in the Waltz of the Flowers. Her daughter Lia, now 12, has performed in the production as a marzipan lamb. And her son Benjamin, 9, loves touring the catwalks to see the machines that sprinkle faux snow onto the stage. In past years, her husband sometimes brought food to the green room so the family could eat dinner together preshow.
This year is different. Ms. Howard will perform throughout the 22-day run, but there will be no baby mice or lambs, roles typically played by children under 12. Same-day COVID-19 tests are required for unvaccinated children to attend (although discounted youth tickets are available). And the Four Seasons Centre is limiting the number of people allowed backstage.
Given all those restrictions, Ms. Howard and her husband decided they would skip attending The Nutcracker as a family and gave away her comp tickets. But they did so without consulting Benjamin. “He was so bummed,” Ms. Howard said. “I immediately called the box office.” Even she was surprised by her own son’s enthusiasm for going to the ballet at Christmastime. “For a dancer The Nutcracker is a rite of passage,” said Ms. Howard, who has performed with the National Ballet since 1998. “It feels like it’s becoming that way for my kids too.”
Another show tradition that she’ll miss this year are the Cannon Dolls, celebrity guests wearing clownlike costumes who help fire a pretend cannon during a tumultuous battle scene between rats and toy soldiers. In 2019, those guests included Stars frontman Torquil Campbell, comedian Candy Palmater and former Toronto Raptor Kyle Lowry. Ms. Howard’s all-time favourite is author Margaret Atwood.
This year, vaccinated staff members from the National Ballet will take turns firing the cannon. And while it’s unfortunate that celebrity silliness can’t serve as a draw, Ms. Howard hopes parents will still bring children to the show. If her “squeamish” son can handle a COVID-19 test, any kid can, she said. “I think the excitement … will wash away the 15 seconds of the swab.”
Les Grands Ballets Canadiens
For months, Ivan Cavallari, the artistic director of Les Grand Ballets Canadiens de Montreal, wrestled with how to restage the Act 1 party scene of his company’s The Nutcracker, which is set in the opulent ballroom of a 19th-century home. Typically, the stage is filled with children ages 8 to 11, including a young girl named Clara and her naughty brother Fritz, whose parents host the gathering. Lively choreography is usually a big hit with the youngsters in the audience.
“The question was, ‘What can we do for the children who can come to the theatre after two years of pandemic?’” Mr. Cavallari said.
One fall weekend he had an idea. The answer wasn’t to rework the party scene – it was to choreograph an entirely new ballet himself for the first half of the show, and then follow it with the Clara’s Journey divertissement from the second act of The Nutcracker created by former resident choreographer Fernand Nault. “So literally, over the weekend, I wrote a story and said to my team, ‘Let’s put some magic together,’” Mr. Cavallari said.
The new double bill premiered Thursday, Dec. 9. The first act, The Enchanted Gift, introduces audiences to Professor Nicholas Christmas. One-by-one, the toymaker’s works come to life, including a toy soldier, Puss in Boots and a harlequin doll. But two witches conspire to steal the professor’s creations, until he packages the one present that “stays with humanity forever, which is the gift of love,” Mr. Cavallari said. He hopes that both parents and children will embrace the anti-commercialization message.
The Enchanted Gift is set to excerpts from the Bachianas Brasileiras suites by Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos, and performed by a live orchestra and an opera singer.
“We are happy that we can go back to live music,” Mr. Cavallari said. “We have the whole package, which is fundamental, I would say, for the journey and coming to the theatre and having a Christmas experience.”
December, 2021, has brought many changes to the largest ballet company in Western Canada. For starters, because of COVID-19 logistics, the company was unable to bring its version of The Nutcracker to Vancouver and Victoria, leaving the two cities without a major professional production. Back home in Calgary and Edmonton, audiences will notice several differences besides the missing baby mice from Act I.
Amid an international movement to examine how non-white characters are presented in ballet, co-artistic director Christopher Anderson decided to drop the “Chinese” and “Arabian” dances from Act II, when Klara and her prince are transported to the Land of the Sweets and meet characters from around the world, along with the Sugar Plum Fairy.
The Arabian, or “coffee” dance, which featured one female dancer being manipulated by two men wearing plumed sultan hats and not much else, had previously elicited concerns from patrons, Mr. Anderson said. His plan is to revise the two dances and restore them next year “in a more informed way” after receiving input from audiences, experts in non-Western dance and members of the Asian-Canadian community.
It’s a move applauded by Phil Chan, a dancer and consultant who co-founded Final Bow for Yellowface, an American non-profit that works with performing arts groups to improve depictions of Asians onstage and amplify the work of Asian artists. “Cancelling” the two dances may be easier, Mr. Chan said, but it’s better to have a meaningful discourse. “It’s about building a better Nutcracker – that is the end goal,” Mr. Chan said.
Although Mr. Anderson has not committed to collaborating with Mr. Chan specifically, he’s aware of the nonprofit’s work – for example, helping Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet premiere a “Lucky Cricket” character in The Nutcracker to perform in the “Chinese Tea” dance this year.
For now, most of Alberta Ballet’s beloved characters are back, including the Snow Czarina who leads Klara on her journey, and will be posing for pictures with fans (while wearing a mask) in the lobby. Almost 30,000 Albertans see the production each year, and in 2022 Mr. Anderson hopes to present a revised Act II that “finds the spirit of the production” commissioned in 2008 by outgoing artistic director Jean Grand-Maître. “I’m excited for our reimagining and for the story to evolve,” Mr. Anderson said.
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