Last year, they practiced in their garages, peering into computer monitors to discern the finer points of technique. Those who were especially lucky danced alone for a videographer who would then edit their brief moment on stage with those of other equally isolated performers for a streaming version of “The Nutcracker.” It was a meager consolation to dancers and would-be audience members who yearned for the real thing.
This year, they’ll stand on stages across Massachusetts, from Braintree to Andover to Littleton to Scituate to Lynn, their faces glowing with a mix of joy and physical exertion as that fabled Christmas tree grows to its towering height in front of their eyes once again.
For dancers, there’s nothing quite like “The Nutcracker.” But last year, for many of them, there was no “Nutcracker.”
Erika Wolf of Belmont said that for her family, the annual production is as much a part of the holiday season as caroling or cookie swaps. Having once been a professional dancer herself, Wolf now oversees class schedules and rehearsal times for her three children — which makes December a particularly hectic month.
“Driving back and forth to the theater, waiting through long rehearsals, trying to remember if I brought enough snacks for one kid and the right color of ballet slippers for another. And I usually take a couple of days off from work to help out backstage,” she said.
This season, due to pandemic restrictions, only Wolf’s eldest child, Ellis Wolf Annunziata, will be performing, playing the title role in this year’s production by the Northeast School of Ballet in Reading. “‘The Nutcracker’ is iconic,” observed the 15-year-old, who has danced in holiday shows since he was about 8. “It’s the one ballet everybody knows. And it’s a big part of people’s holiday season.”
For Wolf Annunziata, as for his fellow students at the pre-professional Northeast School of Ballet, the past year was a long series of frustrating adjustments: first transitioning from their nearly full-time dance instruction program in Reading to following along on Zoom from home, then having to stay masked when they finally returned to the studio to perform for video cameras rather than a live audience. So the prospect of doing a normal performance in front of a full auditorium outweighs all the challenges dancers have faced this past year.
Several dance companies around Greater Boston replaced last year’s traditional “Nutcracker” performance with a livestreamed or pretaped version, but even that required a lot of modifications, as dancers often had to be filmed individually. Marthavan McKeon, artistic director of the South Shore Ballet Theatre in Hingham, recalled traveling all over the South Shore to film her students. “I’m no Steven Spielberg, but it turned out pretty good,” she said.
Still, McKeon is ecstatic to be returning to live performances next month at Thayer Academy in Braintree. “Dancers who are vaccinated will be allowed to perform without masks, but everyone will be masked in the dressing rooms,” she said. Another adjustment that McKeon has made this year is that the young children who appear only in the first act will be allowed to sit in the audience with their families during the second act rather than staying backstage, reducing the concentration of people in a small space.
Getting back on stage for the holiday season isn’t only about honoring tradition, as Mary Demaso of Dance Prism, a touring company based in Concord, pointed out. It’s also how dance companies stay afloat. “By our opening ‘Nutcracker’ performance Thanksgiving weekend, we will have gone 23 months without any earned income,” Demaso said. “It’s been a terrifying time for everyone in performing arts.”
As she prepared for 11 performances spread out over five different communities, Demaso reflected on how happy she was to see her dancers again after they spent the better part of a year doing remote instruction. “It’s astonishing how much young dancers have changed physically since I last saw them,” she said. “They also seem very invested in the show. Maybe even a little bit more disciplined than they were before. And they were already a highly self-disciplined group.”
Like many dance company leaders, Melinda Marculetiu of the International Ballet Academy of Norwell went the extra mile last year to try to give her dancers something approximating a normal experience. “We prepared our ‘Nutcracker’ routines at in-person classes, masked and socially distanced. We filmed them and gave families access on YouTube. So they at least had something. This year it is very nice to be able to go back onto the big stage.”
Not every dance company could bridge the chasm back to live shows this season, though — and it wasn’t always a matter of dancers’ health or rehearsal safety. After having no “Nutcracker” last year, “this year we were adamant that we were going to do it,” recounted Kerrin Michaels, director of the Greater Boston School of Dance and Classical Ballet in Natick. “But when we tried to secure a venue, we found most schools were not renting out their auditoriums. So we pivoted, decided to do something completely out of the box. We’re going to film the whole production and make a full feature movie to present for one night at AMC Framingham.”
Serendipitously, the decision provided her dance students with the chance to learn something new. “On stage everything is big,” Michaels said. “Gestures are broad and directed. Filming lets the dancers be more subtle, the acting more natural.”
For 17-year-old Emily Lardizabal, a senior at Westford Academy, this year’s performance with Commonwealth Ballet will feel particularly nostalgic, as she doesn’t know what kinds of dance opportunities the years ahead will bring.
“I’ve been in ‘The Nutcracker’ every year since I was 9,” she said. “I’ve been every size of mouse. Small, medium, large. This year we’ve been doing ‘Nutcracker’ library readings in the community and I’ve even had a little role reading the part of the Mouse King.”
When Commonwealth Ballet takes the stage at Regis College in Weston in mid-December, Lardizabal will play the lead Neopolitan dancer and the Snow Queen for two performances. Being in front of an audience — especially after a year of practicing on a makeshift stage that her family crafted in their basement out of pool noodles and plywood — is a thrill, but there’s more to being a dancer than shining on stage.
“I love the backstage mood as well, when everyone’s getting ready for the curtain to lift,” Lardizabal said. “This is part of our family Christmas tradition every year.”
Sophie Wu, an 18-year-old from Acton, shares the part of the Snow Queen with Lardizabal in the Commonwealth Ballet’s performances. Performing in the “Nutcracker” has been a yearly tradition for Wu for more than 10 years, but the Snow Queen is the role she always dreamed of.
“It’s something I’ve built up in my mind for so long,” she said. “That’s why I’m both excited and nervous about it.” It’s also a role that requires extensive partnering, and the remote dance classes she took for much of last year prevented Wu from getting as much practice with partnering as she expected to have by now.
Seanna Chmura, codirector of the Greater Salem Ballet Company, knows that feeling well.
“We could hardly wait to get started again. Last year we had no recitals, no ‘Nutcracker.’ For many of our students, dance is their passion. Kids who play sports get to show off their skills at every game and tournament. Dancers get just this one day to show what they’ve learned. The younger ones asked me so many times how many days were left until ‘The Nutcracker’ that I put a counter on our website.”
“It’s the best way to start the holiday season,” declared 11-year-old Julia Fine of Newton, who will play Clara in the South Shore Ballet Theatre performance. “Everybody’s excited. I practiced so hard during the pandemic. Since I was at home almost all the time, I had even more time to work on ballet. I can’t wait to show how much I’ve improved.”
Nancy Shohet West can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
WHERE TO SEE THE NUTCRACKER THIS YEAR
Northeast School of Ballet
Livestreamed and in person at the J. Everett Collins Center for the Performing Arts, Andover, on Dec. 11 and 12. For more information, go to nsbinc.org.
South Shore Ballet Theatre
Thayer Academy, Braintree, on Dec. 18 and 19. For more information, go to southshoreballettheatre.com.
Fall River, Nov. 28; Sudbury, Dec. 5.; Littleton, Dec. 11; Worcester, Dec. 12; Andover, Dec. 18 and 19. For more information, go to www.danceprism.com
International Ballet Academy of Norwell
Scituate Center for the Performing Arts, Scituate, on Dec. 11. For more information, go to www.ibanorwell.org.
Greater Boston School of Dance and Classical Ballet
Film version at AMC Framingham on Dec. 19. For more information, go to www.greaterbostonschoolofdance.com.
Regis College, Weston, on Dec. 17, 18, and 19. For more information, go to commonwealthballet.org.
Greater Salem Ballet Company
Lynn Auditorium, Lynn, on Dec. 11. For more information, go to www.thegsbc.com.
Nancy Shohet West can be reached at email@example.com.