In 2020, the pandemic has one-upped the Rat King as The Nutcracker’s nastiest villain.
As mask mandates and social distancing continue, dance studio sound systems aren’t blasting Tchaikovsky’s sweeping score for months on end. Aspiring ballerinas haven’t gotten to check for their names on a cast list, and theater lobbies won’t teem with tiny tots dressed to the nines.
But Texas ballet companies are still raring to spread holiday cheer. From child-focused Zoom parties to dancer cameos at story time, they’re trading crowded rehearsal rooms and theaters for a combination of virtual programming and pop-up performances, where the Sugar Plum Fairy may yet make an appearance.
“It’s not the year to come to Nutcracker,” says Stanton Welch, Houston Ballet’s artistic director. “So, you know, we had to find a way around that.”
The beloved tale of a little girl’s nutcracker soldier who comes to life is more than just a show: it’s a wintertime institution and a critical moneymaker for the dance community. At Houston Ballet, for example, the show typically generates around $5 million in revenue. As dusted in magic and merriment as gingerbread houses, ice skating, and caroling on Christmas Eve, the production attracts audiences young and old, often for their first or only ballet experience.
“When you’re able to step back away from it and you recognize the place that it holds in people’s hearts—and the fact that they use dance as a way to celebrate the holidays, and a dance where the hero of the story is a young girl—it’s really an amazing thing that happens,” says Stephen Mills, artistic director of Ballet Austin.
One playful approach comes from Houston Ballet, which will sandwich snippets from The Nutcracker between lighthearted carols (think Eartha Kitt’s “Santa Baby”) for a tongue-in-cheek virtual variety show. Dancers are filming their roles one at a time in short increments, with breaks in between to deep-clean the room. The roughly hour-long Nutcracker Sweets premieres December 15. It’s a play on old-timey specials, in which feel-good hosts such as Judy Garland sang songs and performed skits with friends.
“It should be like your family’s come over, on Zoom,” Welch says.
At Texas Ballet Theater (TBT) in Dallas–Fort Worth, audiences can still nab a front-row seat for the perennial classic—it’ll just be their living room sofa. TBT is selling digital tickets to a recorded full-length staging from 2012, plus a thirty-minute Nutty Nutcracker parody. Dancers in costume will also grace community pop-up events in the Dallas Arts District this December, “Just to say, ‘Hey, we’re here, and we miss you, too,’” says Vanessa Logan, TBT’s executive director.
“We value and cherish that we are the holiday tradition in North Texas,” she says. “We didn’t want to disappoint our audiences.”
In Austin, Mills presides over what’s billed as the longest-running Nutcracker statewide. After entertaining two million Central Texans during the better part of six decades, his ensemble refused to let COVID-19 spoil that record. The company will present The Nutcracker: Home for the Holidays, a multi-day, multimedia melange of holiday-themed content, including festive recipes and virtual dance classes.
Last December, Ballet Austin serendipitously shot a three-camera, full-length version of The Nutcracker, which will be made available to anyone who contributes $30. For the production’s die-hard fans, a $100 “golden key” will also unlock a veritable advent calendar of supplemental offerings.
“These dances aren’t going away, they’re just morphing for this particular time,” Mills says. “When it’s safe to be back, we will be doing dance as it’s meant to be done: in-person, live, with an audience, having that connection over the footlights.”
Whenever Ballet Austin’s Nutcracker does return to the stage, it may look a little different. After an eye-opening year for social justice, Mills hopes to revise some of the racial stereotypes in the show’s second act.
“Imagine being a three-year-old, sitting in a theater over, and over, and over, and over, watching these things,” he says. “Once the bell rings, you can’t unring it.”
As The Nutcracker gets condensed into pandemic-friendly doses of holiday spirit, it’s not the same show that dancers have always cherished.
For Josephine Willman, a seventeen-year-old advanced student at Ballet Austin Academy, the disruption means she won’t get to perform the seasonal staple at all during her last winter at home before starting college. From angel, to mouse, to bonbon, to party girl, to a starring turn as Clara, she’s worked her way through almost the entire catalog of children’s roles with Ballet Austin.
“It just feels like I’m missing something,” Willman says. “Because Nutcracker is such, like, an essential part of the holiday season—of winter—that not having it is a bit strange.”
In South Texas, high school senior Quillan Thurman, 18, loves the production’s first act, so he’s disappointed that he won’t get to reprise droll characters such as the Rat King or Party Parent during a truncated live staging with the Corpus Christi Ballet. This year, everyone will be required to wear masks as the dancers perform for a much smaller audience in distanced seating.
But as Thurman rushes from his job at a lumber and hardware store to rehearsals for the three Nutcracker roles he’s juggling (he plays Arabian and Russian dancers, as well as the Dewdrop Cavalier), he’s just glad to be taking part in his final Nutcracker before Army boot camp.
“Honestly, if you don’t think about the stuff that’s been taken away, it feels just like a normal year,” he says. “But you have to not think about the bad.”
Two hours north, Ballet San Antonio is also hosting a live Nutcracker season, with a commission that builds on the original story and follows a grown-up Clara during the holidays. The Nutcracker v. 2020 has a run time of just over an hour with no intermission, and patrons at San Antonio’s Tobin Center will undergo temperature screenings before finding their socially distanced seats.
Meanwhile, at Houston Ballet, there will be no greenroom meet and greets with itty bitties looking up at principal dancer Melody Mennite, spellbound, as if she were a real-life princess. Instead, Mennite will close out Welch’s variety show by singing a carol.
It feels strange to her, not to be performing The Nutcracker. But in some ways, the rupture falls in line with a year of strangeness. And she’s glad that, rather than squeezing what feels familiar into a screen, her company is adapting and conjuring up something different.
“I hope that it helps lift people’s spirits and give them, like, a little bright spot in this year,” she says. “It’s gonna do that for us, as the dancers. And I like to think that, if it can transfer into us and then we give it, that’s part of why art is important.”