Perspective: American Repertory Ballet’s ‘The Nutcracker’ Conquers the Covid Grinch with Creativity, Determination, and Excellence

Prior to a recent performance of the American Repertory Ballet’s (ARB) The Nutcracker, I heard no one mutter ‘break a leg, the theatrical, ironic, ‘good luck’ wish to performers.  I did overhear, however, one presumptive father tell his daughter: “Go out there and wow the audience. Prove to Mr. Covid that there’s no stopping you.” The young woman smiled, put on her mask, and bounded into the theater.

I did a lot of smiling as I watched my granddaughter Lily perform in two routines – dances performed by my daughter on the same stage for the same ballet company decades ago. Although as a grandmother I was focused on Lily’s flawless (of course) performance, I also was stuck by the profound difference between the show of 1987 and that of 2021

‘Mr. Covid’ was this year’s invisible participant, lurking in the minds of the performers,’ instructors,’ and producers’ minds, but thankfully not within the dancers’ bodies. Covid was the Grinch that stole the show last year, but not this year. The entire company – both the performers on stage and the crews working behind the scenes – was ready for the Covid challenge. They fought back with weapons of spirited determination, plus practical procedural strategies.

The biggest change this year was that everyone in the production was 12 years old and older, because only fully vaccinated dancers were permitted to participate. That meant, the adorable and crowd-pleasing little Mice (usually six years old) were played by big people. Although they were very skilled in their moves, the big Mice failed to elicit the usual ooohs and aaahs from the adoring parents and grandparents in the audience. The roles of the Party Children and Soldiers, also usually played by the younger dancers, were performed by older and more experienced dancers from the Princeton Ballet School (the ballet school of the American Repertory Ballet).

The older and taller dancers, however, presented particular fiscal and logistical challenges for the costume designers Jaclyn Vela (Wardrobe Supervisor) and Janessa Cornell Urwin (Costume Shop).

 “Normally, the Mice are the youngest participants, followed by Party Children and Soldiers. This year we purchased new costumes for the older – and taller – Mice and Soldiers. Each student in the Party Scene required an extensive costume fitting; some costumes were altered to be longer, and some of the costumes we couldn’t use at all. We also revisited some older Party Scene costumes that we had in our stock, which might look new to audiences if they hadn’t seen them before!  We also paid careful attention to the casting to make sure there weren’t any impossible costume changes during the shows, as many of the students are dancing multiple roles,” says ARB Executive Director Julie Hench.

Other Covid-inspired changes were invisible to the theater audience, but crucially important to ensuring that the show would go on. “Since the start of the pandemic, ARB and Princeton Ballet School have been in constant contact with medical consultants and the local health department to develop and implement comprehensive health and safety protocols. As we prepared for a return to live performances in theaters, we also worked with our partner venues and researched other practices that had already proven to be successful in our industry. 

“All participants are fully vaccinated and required to do weekly PCR testing. Our studios are equipped with bipolar ionization air purification systems for an added layer of safety, and masks are required for all rehearsals and at all times in the theater until the moment the dancers step onstage. Our dancers, staff, and school families have done a tremendous job adhering to these protocols, and we are grateful for the community effort that continues to prioritize everyone’s health and safety,” says Hench.

In addition to all the “character-building” elements of putting on the show during a pandemic, the ARB crew discovered some positive benefits to working within the Covid constraints. Because of the absence of younger children in many roles, some of the Princeton Ballet students have gotten more stage time than in prior years, which, according to Hench, is a gift whether you are early in your training or well into your professional career.

An unexpected benefit for the company involves one particular dancer, a Princeton Ballet School alumna Gigi Schadrack, whose story came to my attention, thanks to ARB board member Nancy McMillan.

 “At the end of my freshman year at Princeton University in the spring of 2020, I was sure of one thing: online school alone in my bedroom was not for me. I made the spontaneous decision to take a gap year” and pursue the dream of dancing full-time through the PBS Trainee Program and dancing alongside and under the mentorship of ARB professionals.

“PBS’ incredible faculty taught me that achieving my goals would not simply happen overnight. It takes consistent dedication, practice, and sincere passion. I can say with certainty that I would not be the person I am today without ARB and PBS,” says Gigi, who has been a PBS dancer since 2006.

As someone who gets stressed by Zoom calls, I was particularly curious as to how Ms. Hench and members of the dance company deal with surreal stress of putting on show with Covid always looming and looking over their shoulders. Apparently, I should take up performing, because Covid never undermined and only increased the resilience, commitment, and joy of the dancers, says Hench, who indicates that the same can be said about herself.

“My experience as a professional dancer, and all the years of training before the start of my career, have instilled me with a sense of perseverance, discipline, and adaptability. I understand how important it is for the dancers to keep practicing their art form, and to have performance opportunities whether they are for digital audiences, outdoors, or in traditional theater spaces,” says Hench, who as a kid in Hillsborough NJ made the decision to pursue dance instead of gymnastics, because “I had a fear of heights.”

But she and the others in the ARB production have no fear of the highs they experience during every performance of The Nutcracker – no matter what the challenges.

THE NUTCRACKER American Repertory Ballet’s beloved production of The Nutcracker returns to theaters across New Jersey. This holiday favorite tells the magical story of Clara and her Nutcracker Prince as they battle toy soldiers and larger-than-life mice, and travel through a whirlwind of dancing snowflakes to the Land of Sweets. Greeted by the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier, Clara enjoys a suite of brilliant and joyful dances before opening her eyes to the familiar sights of her own home. Was it all a dream? Upcoming shows include the Patriots Theater at the War Memorial, Trenton, December 9-10; State Theatre New Jersey, New Brunswick, December 17-19 *with live orchestra.

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