Imagining a Year Without "Nutcracker": For Many Dancers, It Will Be Their First Since Childhood

October 13, 2020

One afternoon in mid-June, Pennsylvania Ballet’s dancers, administrative staff, school faculty and orchestra members gathered via Zoom to learn the devastating news: We would not return to the stage in the year 2020. Some turned off their cameras to process. Others looked shocked, grappling to understand what this information meant and how we were going to survive. In addition to canceling various world premieres and full-length classical ballets, we were also calling off the beloved holiday tradition, The Nutcracker. Three months prior to this announcement, when the pandemic caused the theaters to go dark, I had not anticipated the artistic loss and ongoing tragedy this global health crisis would have on performing arts. As I began to settle into a new normal, I grasped that for the very first time in my life I would be without a Nutcracker.

Whitney Huell, wearing a pink tutu and tiara, holds her male partner's right hand, while they both gesture out with their outside arms.

Whitney Huell as the Sugarplum Fairy in Kansas City Ballet’s Nutcracker

Elizabeth Stehling, Courtesy Kansas City Ballet

And not just any production—born and raised in the Philadelphia area, I’ve been a part of Pennsylvania Ballet’s Nutcracker from a very young age. I worked my way through all the childhood roles, until I moved away from home to train at the School of American Ballet. I returned every Christmas to see the show, to sit in the beautiful Academy of Music and relive the magic of tradition. When I joined Pennsylvania Ballet as a professional in 2014, I picked up where I had left off. I debuted my very first soloist role in 2017 as Lead Marzipan and have danced it every year since. To this day, the attack, energy and precision of this role make it my absolute favorite to dance—and not just in Nutcracker!

I am not the only dancer attempting to define my holiday season without Nutcracker this year. Atlanta Ballet artist Jacob Bush shared that his company found out about its production’s cancellation over a Zoom meeting, before a press release was shared with the public. He recalled that artistic staff admitted they had held off making a decision for as long as possible. While the news wasn’t surprising, it catapulted the dancers into a new harsh reality. “The theater is my home away from home during the holidays,” says Bush. “It has been Christmas for me the past 25 years.” He added that the ballet is not only tradition, but an opportunity to take on new roles and perform night after night. “You take Nutcracker for granted when you’ve done it for so long, but performing 30 or more shows in one month is what I will miss the most,” he says.

Jacob Bush, in a blue jacket and red hat, stands next to Jackie Nash, who wears a black and blue tutu, both in tendu back. To their left is a nest full of large broken eggs, along with six child dancers dressed as yellow chicks.

Jacob Bush and Jackie Nash in the French variation from Atlanta Ballet’s Nutcracker

Gene Schiavone, Courtesy Atlanta Ballet

Kansas City Ballet company artist Whitney Huell remembers her shock when the dancers were informed of their canceled production via social media and an email to donors and staff. Nutcracker has been a part of her holiday season since she was 8 years old, and she’s performed many of the ballet’s leading roles at KCB. “I became the first Black female to ever perform Snow Queen and Sugar Plum Fairy in Kansas City Ballet history,” says Huell. “It was a big deal, not just for me, but for the city to embrace diversity and see a person of color take on leading roles.” What makes Nutcracker so fulfilling for Huell is the chance to revisit and work on those roles each year. “I’ll miss the performance opportunity the most.”

Dressed in a pink tutu, Jacqueline Callahan leaps across a brightly lit stage, surrounded by children costumed as Nutcracker characters.

Callahan in George Balanchine’s Nutcracker at Pennsylvania Ballet

Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy Pennsylvania Ballet

To fill the void during the holiday season, companies nationwide are taking their productions to the virtual stage. Atlanta Ballet recently announced its reimagined The Nutcracker 2020 Experience, including a drive-in viewing event at Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, an on-demand access to a previously recorded performance, and a social media series called “30 Days of Nutcracker.” Kansas City Ballet is revamping its 53rd annual Nutcracker Ball to include a virtual holiday program. Boston Ballet and Pacific Northwest Ballet have also announced online or televised versions. Other companies, including Pennsylvania Ballet, have yet to announce their virtual holiday plans, but I remain hopeful. In the meantime, my colleagues and I will continue training and working in pods until we can all be reunited again onstage in 2021.

A ballerina in a white tutu poses in arabesque, partnered by a male dancer dressed in a white jacket and crown. To their left, a group of six dancers dressed as white reindeer pull a sleigh towards a wintery backdrop; a male dancer dressed as a Nutcracker prince stands on the sleigh and a young female dancer sits inside it.

Whitney Huell (far right, in arabesque) as the Snow Queen in Kansas City Ballet’s Nutcracker

Brett Pruitt, Courtesy Kansas City Ballet

Embracing a year without Nutcracker will no doubt leave a hole in the hearts of dancers across the country, but there is a silver lining. “Nutcracker has been such a staple in our city,” says Bush. “Hopefully the lack of performances will help motivate audiences to come to our other shows and get art back into the community.” Huell adds, “I am confident that dance will return, and return stronger than before because we have been without it for so long. People need it. They are realizing they are not whole without it.”