The Year Without a Nutcracker: Reimagining Holiday Traditions in Unprecedented Times

Nastia G., Arts Department Co-Editor

TPG/Getty Images

The holiday season of 2020 is sure to be unique. With social distancing guidelines in place, many families are unable to gather for collective meals and take part in timeless traditions. Some have found creative ways to stay connected, even when apart. Thanksgiving went virtual on Zoom, where families were able to indulge in the scrumptious festivities from a safe distance. The video software even dropped its 40-minute time limit for unpaid subscribers in the spirit of the celebration. The holidays are meant to be a time of warmth and togetherness, and in a year like this, they are needed now more than ever, even if adjustments must be made. Indeed, 2020 will be the year to make brand new traditions as we all try to navigate this new world.

Along with the void made in hearts across the country due to the absence of loved ones, there is another great gap in traditions this year. COVID-19 health regulations have shut down countless artistic performances and venues, leaving a great scar on the face of the arts world. At this time during a normal year, rehearsal spaces and theaters would be buzzing with activity as performers practiced, polished, and performed different holiday classics to spread seasonal cheer around the world. Currently, however, many of those theaters are collecting cobwebs and many performers are struggling to make a living. Yet several professional and amateur companies have refused to throw the towel in this year. The arts have provided an escape from the pains of ordinary life, especially during times of grief. Many artistic communities recognize the need for such an escape is more pressing than ever before. For this reason, performers, producers, directors, and creators are coming up with unique ways to bring holiday cheer to the masses once more.

Since the complete worldwide shutdown in March, many theatres have faced serious challenges as the virus devastated the world’s creative economies. Performing and fine arts industries have lost an estimated total of $42.5 billion in sales in the United States alone. On top of that, 1.4 million performers, over 50% of the industry’s total workforce, across the country have lost their jobs within the last year. When Broadway, regional, and community  theaters closed, the arts industry was forced to get creative with ways to attract audiences, while still keeping in line with public health guidelines. This holiday season, some of the most famous Christmas classics are being rewritten and rearranged to deliver a joyful spectacle for audiences and, hopefully, some profits to a dying industry.

Perhaps the most famous holiday tradition to date is the attendance at different performances of The Nutcracker across the world. Since its inaugural performance in 1892, The Nutcracker has grown to become the world’s most famous ballet and a grand holiday tradition for families. Each winter, ballet and dance companies generate an estimated 45% of their annual profits from these shows alone. For the Washington Ballet, one month of performances costs the company about $250,000 for costumes, sets, and compensation. That is why the production’s annual revenue of $2.1 million is essential for the maintenance of the company. Although most ballet companies have been forced to close their doors and cancel performances altogether, those who are coming up with creative entertainment are still struggling to bring in revenue. Although most ballet companies have been forced to close their doors and cancel holiday performances altogether, some are struggling to bring in revenue this winter season with especially creative performances.

Some companies have taken on the challenge of presenting the ballet as a virtual spectacular to be filmed and distributed virtually for audiences. Companies like the renowned Houston Ballet are providing links to streaming events specially for subscribers, patrons, and paid viewers for a limited time. Other companies, including the Boston Ballet and Nashville Ballet, are partnering with local television stations to air live-streamed or pre-recorded performances of the classic free of charge to the public. The Atlanta Ballet is providing a drive-in movie-style performance event of the ballet in addition to streamed performances. Some ballet companies have made even more ambitious promises to perform for live audiences this season. Miami City Ballet, for example, is implementing isolated audience “pods” for an outdoor performance this winter. The Oklahoma City Ballet is keeping a traditional indoor theater setting, complete with social distancing, a much stricter limited occupancy, and elimination of paper programs.

Annual theatrical productions of dramatic holiday favorites are undergoing similar adjustments. For Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, Rhode Island, the famous New England tradition of performing Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was an event that could not be cancelled. The regional company has decided to use both green screen and its professional stage to bring the classic to life through free streaming events that will be open to the public in time for Christmas and the New Year. Some companies have decided to explore new horizons through voiceover work and radio play adaptations of the classic tale and others like it. Others still are taking the magical classic outdoors, where audiences can view live performances following strict guidelines while sipping warm drinks.

Yet some traditional favorites have not been as lucky. The Rockettes Christmas Spectacular was unfortunately cancelled altogether due to COVID-19 concerns. Nonetheless, some of the dancers found the opportunity to perform masked during this year’s Macy’s Day Parade. Each day, more headlines hit the news declaring cancellations of Christmas performances. Even for those who have not yet had the opportunity to attend professional or amateur holiday shows, the impact of COVID-19 on the arts is noticeable. Christmas caroling, though a dying sport even before the outbreak of coronavirus, has now been effectively rooted out from holiday seasons. Singers at places of worship and school choirs and bands cannot convene for live performances and most simply do not have the funding to offer professionally filmed and edited concerts.

While many arts enthusiasts have praised different performance companies’ persistence and determination this season, some critics argue that the effects may be more detrimental than many realize. These criticisms stem from several different concerns, from fears about health regulations to preservation of traditional artforms. Many government officials are continuing to fight against any sort of live performance, even those that implement social distancing, as threats to general health and safety. While many performers will wear masks when performing, the restrictions these masks cause have led some companies to choose to omit face-covering requirements. Although many health officials are hesitant of these approaches, certain artistic critics believe that a truthful performance cannot be conducted when performers’ faces are covered. 

Some have taken a more philosophical standpoint. Since almost all of the performances listed above were trimmed to have shorter run times and to exclude plot elements that require special effects, there are critics who argue that the arts are taking an artificial turn for the worst. By cutting original scripts, some argue that one loses the truth behind the story. Others believe that new performances do not convey the true spirit of the artistic world. The New York Times’ arts critic, Maya Phillips, explained her personal feelings towards new streaming approaches to live theatre in an interview, “Part of the thrill of theater is that you get to be present in this human moment, and, for the time that you’re there in the audience, among other viewers, you get to experience art as though it is something real. Your proximity to it helps you cross the boundary of artifice that you know is there. When you’re at home, looking at the screen, it takes an extra leap of imagination, and attention as well, because we can so easily be caught up in the everyday goings on of our lives: roommates walking around, tweeters tweeting, news happening, etc.”

         There is a general concern as to whether the arts will ever return to be the same. After a year full of permanent company closures and millions of unemployed artists, it is easy to worry for the future of the performing arts. Even if the coronavirus eventually becomes a distant memory, its effects are sure to be long-lasting. Will one ever sit in a crowded space again? Although the future remains uncertain, one fact is clear: the performing arts will not go down without a fight. Their traditional presence will be greatly missed this holiday season, but it is important to learn to adapt to these changing times.

The artistic world relies on the help of many for its survival. During these times, donations to local and regional companies are always appreciated, and attendance at streamed events is encouraged. As performers work tirelessly to bring joy and holiday spirit to the lives of all this season, be sure to showcase your gratitude. Demonstrate your support by visiting the websites of performing arts companies within your area and see how you can help save the arts. Donate today to ensure a better tomorrow.

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