Charlotte Ballet's Pandemic Nutcracker Feels 'Kind Of Normal'
For many, there will be no Nutcracker performance in Charlotte this year. No annual holiday showcase of the Sugar Plum Fairy or the Mouse King or festive scenes filled with opulent Christmas trees and presents.
But for once in 2020, it’s not because COVID-19 has canceled it.
This time, it’s because Charlotte Ballet’s intimate, “fairy-tailored” version of “The Nutcracker” ballet this December sold out in about two hours.
Tickets to 17 performances over 11 days beginning Dec. 12 were snapped up so quickly partly because the coronavirus forced a reimagined version of the Nutcracker: just 25 audience members are permitted per show, everyone must adhere to safety precautions that include wearing masks and social distancing, and each performance lasts for only 40 minutes instead of the typical two-hour extravaganza with an intermission.
But it’s still an in-person, live version of “The Nutcracker” – something that not anyone was sure could be achieved and not many other companies have attempted this year.
It's something that Charlotte Ballet is hopeful it can actually pull off because artistic director Hope Muir says it's important for both the dancers and the Charlotte community.
“I think everyone's been immersed digitally now for so many months,” Muir said. “I think an in-person experience, especially in the holiday season, is going to be much needed.”
The idea for the scaled-down version of the story started a few months ago after both "The Nutcracker" and "Sleeping Beauty" had been postponed. Muir and others in Charlotte Ballet realized there might be a way to still tell the Nutcracker story safely in a pandemic. She and Christopher Stuart, program director for the second company, brainstormed separately and then together, choreographing something that might work.
“It's very pared down,” Muir said. “But it seems to be challenging enough and it's festive. And the story is told just in a very succinct way.”
Muir started with the idea that just five dancers should be on stage at any one time. All wear masks throughout the performance. And they have had to remain nimble as Gov. Roy Cooper has issued executive orders imposing further coronavirus restrictions, including a tightening of face mask requirements and reducing limits on mass gatherings. The current limit of 10 people indoors that expires Dec. 11 applies to private gatherings, but not performance venues.
The most difficult part might have been removing large chunks of the story – and the classic Tchaikovsky music – to condense the performance to a manageable time indoors among a crowd.
“As someone that danced Nutcracker a lot in my career, the music is very much written with the story in mind,” Muir said. “So one of the hardest things to do when we were working on it was to try and hear the music in a new way when you know exactly where in the story that music goes. It was hard to take things out and it was hard to try and drive the narrative with music that traditionally might be somewhere else…
“Things just started coming together. And now when I look at it, it still makes sense -- even though some of the music is kind of narratively in the wrong place. In 40 minutes, I would imagine everyone will notice something's missing. But the most important thing to me was to just tell the story.”
“The Nutcracker” traditionally is one of the biggest draws for ballet companies across the country each year – and something that is “a huge revenue driver,” Muir said. “Every company in the States does depend on the Christmas production, so it’s going to have its impact, 100%.”
While many other companies are performing the show digitally, Muir said it was important to her to attempt an in-person version.
“We spoke about the motivation for it, and it wasn't necessarily a financial motivation. It was really about giving something back to the community that has supported us through this pandemic,” she said, “and to also get something for the dancers to look forward to and to still grow as artists.
“Because dancers don't ever take a gap year. And fundamentally, this year has been such a struggle for everyone, but for the profession of being a dancer specifically, it's really, really frustrating for them to have missed out so much time of their training in what is such a short career, anyway.”
So even though dancers are tested weekly for the coronavirus, even though audience members have to adhere to safety protocols that include temperature checks and mandatory face masks, dancers are running through rehearsals and having costume fittings in preparation for an opening night that Muir imagines will be “electric.”
“It's a lifeblood to dance and to be around your colleagues and to share that kind of intimate space,” Muir said. “So now, even though we're wearing masks and we're doing the temperatures every day, I'd say that this is as close to kind of normal – which is nice.”
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