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Tirion Law and Siphesihle November in The Nutcracker, on Dec. 9, 2021.Karolina Kuras/National Ballet of Canada

The National Ballet of Canada was performing The Nutcracker last month but it might as well have been dancing Swan Lake for all the evil curses and tragic reversals swirling around the production. Audiences had returned in droves, snapping up tickets for the annual Christmastime treat, but as COVID-19 cases forced more and more performers to self-isolate, the company had to close before half the run was over, disappointing thousands and losing several million dollars in revenue.

And yet, at midpoint in the 2021-22 season, as governments lift restrictions and theatres in Ontario return to half capacity on Jan. 31, the ballet’s executive director is cheerful about the immediate future of the performing arts.

“People were really excited to come back; that was the silver lining,” Barry Hughson said. “It has been an incredibly hard time for the sector. We were the first hit and we will be the last to come out of it, but what I saw gives me great hope.”

In a normal January, performing arts managers are often happily adding up the dependable revenue from holiday shows that help underwrite riskier bets in the rest of the season: Pre-pandemic, the National Ballet could expect to make one third of its annual box office revenue from a three-week run of The Nutcracker. The show was approaching its usual 98-per-cent level for ticket sales. “We had budgeted at 70 per cent but we were well ahead, close to a normal season,” Hughson said. “Sales were really robust.”

After all the closures and cancellations that have decimated the performing arts since March, 2020, the recent holiday season was looking up. Even before that seasonal boost, labour statistics showed that the performing arts were beginning the slow climb out of the pandemic trough. Statistics Canada numbers assembled by the Canadian Association for the Performing Arts show that live performance added 9,000 jobs in the third quarter of 2021. The sector had made progress last summer, rising about 30 per cent in its real gross domestic product above the collapse of 2020-21, although it was still less than halfway to full recovery.

But then the Omicron variant arrived. In mid-December, Ontario gave theatres two days notice that they had to reduce capacity to 50 per cent.

“We had to contact 4,000 people and tell them they could not come to the theatre,” Hughson said. “After that, things went down pretty fast.” In another four days, The Nutcracker had to close altogether after a few cases emerged in the cast and orchestra: The whole woodwind section had to self-isolate. Well before the province closed theatres completely on Jan. 5, it was clear the show could not continue. The Nutcracker, which had been on track to sell $4.6-million in tickets, had only played 11 of its 26 scheduled performances.

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The ballet’s losses were among the most dramatic but shows were closing across the country, leaving companies – and the restaurants and shops their audiences patronize – without crucial holiday sales. Like Ontario, Quebec ordered its theatres closed; most provinces, including Nova Scotia, Alberta and British Columbia, just imposed capacity limits. Vaccinated and masked audiences seemed safe, but that didn’t stop Omicron from sneaking on stage.

The largest urban theatre company in Canada, Vancouver’s Arts Club Theatre, relies on a popular holiday offering and another annual blockbuster to subsidize its riskier shows. It was good news then that Dolly Parton’s Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol, an American adaptation of the Charles Dickens story with songs by the country singer, was selling well, to 88-per-cent capacity. But when cases of COVID-19 appeared in the cast and orchestra, the show had to close Dec. 27 and refund $300,000 worth of tickets.

Even with 41 performances completed, Arts Club executive director Peter Cathie White says the loss of 13 shows removes “the gravy” from his budget. Like the National Ballet, the company is now predicting it will run a deficit on the 2021-22 season, and the Arts Club has postponed until March its January show, Made in Italy, a musical about a second-generation Italian Canadian growing up in Alberta. You cannot, however, reschedule A Christmas Carol or The Nutcracker for the spring.

At the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., December entertainment is a more recent entry, and this year the theatre had programmed two shows: Its annual production of A Christmas Carol was sold out while the musical Holiday Inn, in the larger Festival Theatre, was also doing well. But both shows had to close early after a company member in each tested positive, resulting in about a dozen cancelled performances. While holiday shows aren’t key moneymakers for Shaw, they attract a more local crowd, build new audiences for the spring-summer festival and make a big difference to small businesses in the tourist town.

Christmas Carol might make between $500,000 and $600,000 gross over the run, but what it does for the town in terms of its economic impact is that it took the month of December from being the number 10 month of the year in Niagara-on-the-Lake to number two,” executive director Tim Jennings said.

What also worries Jennings is the loss of momentum that live performance was building after a treacherous year and a half: “There’s something concerning to restoring consumer confidence when you have to pull back like that.”

It really put the wind in our sails that the audiences came back. I’m exhausted but I am incredibly optimistic

National Ballet of Canada Executive Director Barry Hughson

This is a topic of much discussion in the performing arts: When will audiences feel safe to return?

Performing arts managers point out that their problems have involved COVID-19 cases in their casts, who have to rehearse and perform without masks, not in their audiences. During the 11 performances of The Nutcracker, more than 14,000 people visited the Four Seasons Centre: The ballet had to trace contacts for two audience members.

“There is strong evidence that theatres and performing arts centres are not a source of spread in the community,” Hughson said.

Regular surveys conducted by Nanos Research for the arts lobby group Business/Arts and the National Arts Centre show a public divided into three rough groups: one that would return the minute any restrictions lift; one that would wait a few months and another that was unsure or would never return. After a good summer, the most recent survey, taken in late December, included responses from the 27 per cent who had already returned to indoor arts events.

However, as Omicron hit, the survey also showed renewed fears as almost a third of respondents cited the virus as the main obstacle to participation, up from 18 per cent when that question was asked the previous month. The numbers who say they will never return are small – 9 per cent in December; 7 per cent in November – but have risen sharply since the survey was taken last May.

Still, Hughson cautions that surveys of audience comfort levels tend to reflect the tenor of that day’s COVID-19 news. In November, before Omicron, the National Ballet staged a mixed program, including Angels’ Atlas by the Canadian choreographer Crystal Pite – the kind of dance event that appeals to hard-core aficionados, not families looking for some seasonal entertainment. The show sold $1.4-million in tickets, outperforming its prepandemic showing in 2020 by a small amount and setting a company record for revenue on a mixed program.

“It really put the wind in our sails that the audiences came back,” Hughson said. “I’m exhausted but I am incredibly optimistic because of what I saw in November and December.”

With files from J. Kelly Nestruck.

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