2020: A Christmas without ‘The Nutcracker’
A holiday tradition like no other — Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” — was another casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic.
And dancers, directors and live venues alike are feeling its absence.
From toddlers to professional company dancers, “The Nutcracker” is an all-encompassing production that features all kinds of performers and generates holiday spirit each Christmas season.
Whether behind the curtain, under the lights or watching from the audience, the story is universal and magical. Many know it by heart, even though there aren’t any words.
In a normal year, residents of Santa Barbara would be lining up at The Granada or the Arlington Theatre for a chance to see the Russian dancers, the Dewdrop, the soldiers — and of course, the Sugar Plum Fairy.
In a normal year, Santa Barbara’s State Street Ballet, a professional ballet company, would have been on tour around the country, finishing up at The Granada.
In a normal year, the Santa Barbara Festival Ballet’s “Nutcracker” production would be selling out at the Arlington Theatre.
However, although roles were cast and hopes were high, the pandemic ultimately meant no live performances with an audience.
Instead, State Street Ballet is providing free streaming of its 2019 “Nutcracker” through Dec. 31 at statestreetballet.com. It’s the virtual version of a beloved tradition.
“Most dancers have lived their whole life never going a year without a ‘Nutcracker,’” Rodney Gustafson, the founder and director of State Street Ballet, told the News-Press. “People wonder, ‘Why can’t you come up with another Christmas story?’ There’s something about tradition, and it’s kind of like Thanksgiving. You’re not going to change Thanksgiving to something else.”
In a normal year, Mr. Gustafson’s ballet company would have spent three weeks touring in Colorado, Washington and Los Angeles before coming back for the grand finale in Santa Barbara.
“It’s just such an important part of our American tradition,” he said. “As much as some of the professional dancers may say, ‘Nutcracker again?,’ they all love it and depend on it.
“You go when you’re a kid, and then you take your kid — and then you’re taking your grandkid.”
While the sentimental aspects of “The Nutcracker” are the largest void, the show acts as a lifeline to live venues and performers. Without it, theaters suffer heavy losses.
For the State Street Ballet, that loss is about $150,000 in ticket sales just in Santa Barbara showings alone. From the tour, that’s another $150,000 lost, resulting in a total loss of $300,000.
“The Nutcracker” is about one-third of the company’s annual budget.
“It’s a big loss for everyone emotionally, and obviously it’s a big loss for us financially,” Leila Drake, the State Street Ballet’s associate director, told the News-Press. “The Nutcracker is the lifeline for probably every ballet company because of its popularity and success.”
Ms. Drake said she thinks everyone seems to be “getting used to disappointments this year.”
“All our professional company members had been working on new roles they were doing this year,” she said. “It’s heartbreaking, and it’s hard when you put so much work and effort into something and you don’t get a chance to show what you’ve worked on.”
“The Nutcracker” is usually sold out at The Granada, according to Ms. Drake.
“People want to be together and share these experiences, especially around the holidays,” she said. “It makes it sad and weird to not gather with friends and family and enjoy music and dance.”
A special part about “The Nutcracker” is the age and skill ranges of performers. Ms. Drake spoke to the value of professionals sharing the studio with students and children, as well as seeing young dancers go from little Ginger Snaps to the role of Clara or Snow.
“It’s such a beloved tradition in ballet to put the little kids in the show with the advanced students,” she said. “It’s a full circle kind of production.”
Palmer Jackson is the executive chairman of The Granada, and he told the News-Press that it’s difficult to gauge the impact of not holding “The Nutcracker” this year.
But based on last year’s revenue, it’s at least a $65,000 loss for the venue, Mr. Jackson said.
“The ballet presents big challenges because it’s a lot of bodies and people getting close to each other,” he said. “We thought we’d be able to have a limited audience right now, but obviously we’re not.”
Mr. Jackson said staff had set up diagrams of a socially distanced audience, with 350 people sitting every other row, as opposed to filling all 1,500 seats. However, the stay-at-home order prevented that plan from following through.
“We as a theater are going through the same thing the Lobero is going through and Ensemble Theater, just grappling with having nothing in our hall, and in our case, we furloughed 25 people,” he said.
Valerie Huston is the interim executive director, resident choreographer and a teacher at Santa Barbara Festival Ballet. She’s been involved in one way or another in the Festival Ballet’s “Nutcracker” production at the Arlington Theatre every year since its inception 45 years ago. This is the first year the company hasn’t performed “The Nutcracker.”
“Dance is all encompassing,” she told the News-Press. “Your body, your mind, your spirit, the pure physicality, working against a form that is not natural every single day — you need a little incentive.
“And ‘The Nutcracker’ for our students at Santa Barbara Festival Ballet is that incentive.”
As a dancer herself, she spoke to the “transcendent moments” in “The Nutcracker” that keep audiences coming back year after year, such as a moment during the Sugar Plum Fairy’s dance where she does a turn and takes her head “up to the heavens” for a pause.
“There are those moments in ballet that I call transcendent, and for people in the audience, it’s spellbinding, even if you don’t know one thing about ballet,” Ms. Huston said. “It’s that kind of magic that people wait for in the production. Yes, we love the children and the party scene, but I think we all live for those transcendent moments in one way or another.”
Each year, the Festival Ballet provides more than 800 free tickets to families who otherwise wouldn’t be able to see the show. Now the dancers went from dancing in a studio to outside to a parking lot on foam pads with the ever-changing COVID-19 guidelines.
“Any career is dicy these days, but certainly a career in the arts is not an easy one,” she said. “It’s taken the air out of their sails a bit, but we will get it back.”
Ms. Huston has choreographed Kingdom of the Suites, Arabian and Mirliton scenes and more in her career.
She added, “We call ourselves ballet warriors. We have booked the Arlington for next year.”