Returning to “Nutcracker”: Dancers Reflect on the Holiday Classic After 2020’s Hiatus
For most ballet companies, The Nutcracker is an annual repertoire staple, sometimes requiring dancers to perform in as many as 30 to 40 shows during the holiday season. But last year, the pandemic forced dance organizations around the world to reimagine their productions by going digital or taking it to outside venues. In many cases, companies and schools had to completely cancel this enduring tradition.
Now dancers are performing Nutcracker again, after a nearly two-year hiatus. Pointe asked four pros for their thoughts on returning to the holiday classic.
What They’re Most Excited For…
Nutcracker can bring about conflicting feelings. On the one hand, a long Nut run offers plenty of stage time with multiple roles. On the other, performing the same thing every day can become monotonous. However, the general consensus among the dancers we spoke with was an overwhelming sense of gratitude and relief.
“Last year was a really rough time for me, so I’m just happy to be able to do what I love and to perform onstage again,” says Joffrey Ballet dancer Princess Reid. She’s particularly excited to be taking on a debut role, the Venetian divertissement, in Joffrey’s production.
Miami City Ballet principal Jennifer Lauren is looking forward to dancing with the children cast in the party scene and as angels, polichinelles and candy canes in the second act. In 2020, only Marie and the Nutcracker Prince danced live onstage in MCB’s outdoor Nutcracker production. (All other young dancers appeared via giant LED screen.) This year the company has made adjustments, like testing all the children twice weekly and requiring vaccines for all dancers and administration so that they can participate.
“Nutcracker is a time where we’re onstage with all these wonderful little humans watching our every move, and we get to show them where their hard work and dedication may take them one day,” says Lauren, who dances the Sugarplum Fairy and Dewdrop roles. She looks for ways to encourage her young castmates by talking with them and even giving away her pointe shoes as mementos. “I remember how much it meant to me as a kid to be part of Nutcracker, and now to introduce the next generation to this world is something I look forward to.”
Virtual Versus In-Person Performances
Though many Nutcrackers were canceled last year, some companies kept the holiday tradition alive through filmed versions on YouTube, Facebook and other media platforms. However, most dancers agree that there’s nothing like connecting with a live audience. That’s just not something you can get virtually, says Reid.
Both Reid and Washington Ballet company member Adelaide Clauss note that they’ve missed the behind-the-scenes energy, too. “I’m just looking forward to revisiting the camaraderie backstage, from all the familiar faces at the theater, to the kids backstage, to the level of group effort and spirit exuded by my colleagues in our dressing rooms,” Clauss says.
But Clauss adds that the biggest difference between virtual and in-person performances is developing stamina and getting into the swing of doing multiple shows in a row. “You get into a unique performance state of mind during constant runs of Nutcracker that just doesn’t happen during a virtual filming.”
Challenges and Changes to Nutcracker 2021
If there’s anything the pandemic has taught dancers, it’s that adaptability and solidarity are not only important but necessary. Between masks, social distancing and other COVID-19 protocols, artists still face some hurdles as they return to the stage this season. But in true ballet fashion, many are taking these struggles in stride.
“We have been rehearsing in masks, which has proven to be quite a challenge,” says Jaime DeRocker of Nevada Ballet Theatre. “However, if I can get through Sugarplum Fairy or Winter Fairy in a mask, imagine how easy dancing will feel without one.” She is looking forward to performing mask-free, if circumstances permit.
For many dancers, this year’s Nutcracker acts as their company’s season opener, adding another level of peculiarity. “We’ve had gala-type performances, but Nutcracker marks our first live, full-length ballet since the onset of the pandemic,” says Clauss. However, she feels more than prepared. “We ramped up very purposefully. We broke down “Snow” and “Flowers” chunk by chunk, repeating sections as necessary. When it comes time for the shows, it’s comforting to know that our bodies can handle these roles.”
Learning and Growing
While the pandemic may have thrown a wrench in many dancers’ plans last Nutcracker season, not all of those changes were bad. Clauss devoted more time to holiday traditions and festivities with family and friends, while Reid cultivated new hobbies (like baking) with time that would have normally been spent in rehearsal. Some dancers even developed habits that they intend to carry into their professional careers.
“The pandemic gave me a chance to assess my relationship with my dance career,” says DeRocker. “I spent a good amount of time developing healthy habits, taking care of my body and mind, and creating boundaries. This Nutcracker season, I plan to be a bit more mindful and aware about why I dance and what it means to me to be able to perform.”