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After spate of ‘Nutcracker’ cancellations, dance companies get creative

Transcript

Judy Woodruff: "The Nutcracker" is one the holiday season's most beloved traditions. It is also vital to the financial well-being of ballet companies all over the country.

But, this year, amid pandemic closures, dance companies everywhere face an enormous threat.

Jeffrey Brown reports for our ongoing arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: Live from Toledo this past weekend -- make that livestreaming -- "The Nutcracker."

Until a week ago, the Toledo Ballet had planned to be one of the very few to stage performances for an in-person audience. The recent explosion of COVID cases put a stop to that. But there they were, adults and children, including 10-year-old Steven Ariss III as Fritz. Already a dance veteran, this was his third "Nutcracker."

You remember the first time you were on stage in "The Nutcracker"? And how did it feel?

Steven Ariss III: I had butterflies in my stomach, but I was still excited. And the thing they do when we're in the green room, the person comes up, and she calls up the scene, and it gets the adrenaline up. And then you're all happy inside. And when you enter on stage, it's just so exciting.

Jeffrey Brown: The Christmas fantasy of young Clara, the Sugar Plum Fairy, and the wooden Nutcracker that turns into a dashing prince has been doing that to dancers and audiences for a long time.

The original ballet was staged in 1892 by Russia's Mariinsky Ballet, with choreography by Marius Petipa and music by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. It became an American tradition after George Balanchine created his version at the New York City Ballet in 1954.

Various reworkings have followed, and, as a ballet with many roles for children, it's introduced generations of young dancers to the art form.

Misty Copeland: It's such an integral part of the ballet world. Every dancer has experienced "The Nutcracker" in some way.

Jeffrey Brown: One of today's biggest stars, American Ballet Theatre principal dancer Misty Copeland, has continued to spread "Nutcracker" cheer and in the 2018 movie "The Nutcracker and the Four Realms."

And she well remembers what it gave her when she started dancing at age 13.

Misty Copeland: It gave me a voice in a way that I did not have as a shy little girl, one of six children just trying to survive. So, being able to tackle the role of Clara at 13 years old with so little training, I grew in leaps and bounds just from that experience, and it's definitely shaped who I am as a dancer today.

Jeffrey Brown: But this holiday season, dance and other performing arts companies face a continuing threat.

Dance USA representing estimates 95 percent of its member organizations canceled in-person performances at least through the end of 2020. But companies, including ballet, have looked to creative solutions.

And this year, there are plenty of "Nutcracker"s, just in new ways, outdoors, at sold-out drive-in performances by the San Diego Ballet, projected on the side of a building by the Joffrey Ballet in Chicago, as a film shot around town by the Santa Cruz Ballet in California, most of all in reimagined virtual performances, San Francisco, Nashville, Washington, throughout the country.

The stakes are high. "The Nutcracker" is always the single most important event on the calendar.

Lisa Mayer-Lang is artistic director of the Toledo Ballet.

Lisa Mayer-Lang: So many people are attending "The Nutcracker." It's part of their yearly tradition, and that revenue is what gets us through the year, because most other things that we do are losses.

Most other performances, educational -- we do a lot of educational performances -- we may come out even, at best. So, with the ballet world, I think that's pretty typical around the world. And it's very well-known that "The Nutcracker" is what affords us to be able to keep our doors open.

Jeffrey Brown: Toledo claims an 80-year continuous history with "The Nutcracker," started by founder Marie Vogt, who died earlier this year at age 99.

Mayer-Lang herself grew up in Toledo and studied ballet here. She spent 22 years in New York working freelance and on Broadway, before returning home to take over as artistic director. The hope this year had been to put on a live performance for a small, distanced audience.

But even when we talked recently, she knew the odds were growing slimmer.

Lisa Mayer-Lang: I definitely don't want to do anything that is going to endanger anybody. So, if we can at least keep "The Nutcracker" going, that's great. If not, of course, the organization, we're doing our hardest to work through this and, like everybody, to be innovative in figuring out how to keep music, dance and the arts alive.

Jeffrey Brown: In the end, the live show was canceled, but the virtual show went on, including young Steven Ariss III.

I asked him and his father, Steven Ariss Jr., if they were disappointed not to have a live audience.

Steven Ariss III: No.

Jeffrey Brown: No?

Steven Ariss III: I'm not disappointed, because the only reason why I'd be disappointed is that I would not be able to put on a show. And since you're still putting on the show, I would not be disappointed. I would be proud.

Steven Ariss Jr.: That's a good way to look at it.

Jeffrey Brown: That's a really good answer.

What about for dad? Are you disappointed it's not with a live audience?

Steven Ariss Jr.: Yes, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't. When you bring everyone together this time of year, you see old friends. You have a reason to go somewhere with family, to go watch a show that maybe you have seen before, and it's tradition.

But, like Steven said, you have to find the positive lining in even the harshest situations.

Jeffrey Brown: All over the world this holiday season, just as in the story itself, "The Nutcracker" has been broken. Our wish for the dancers in Toledo and everywhere, a happy ending.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown.

Judy Woodruff: Happy ending, for sure. So glad they were able to keep going.

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