For professional ballet companies, an annual production of “The Nutcracker” is typical — and essential. “‘Nutcracker’ is really what saves all our organizations,” says Sarah-Gabrielle Ryan, a dancer with Pacific Northwest Ballet. “I think every professional ballet company basically runs on ‘Nutcracker.’ ” Without it, she says, “we wouldn’t exist.”
But COVID-19 led many productions across the industry to be canceled or modified last year — Miami City Ballet held theirs outdoors — and as PNB prepares to revive the holiday tradition in person, it faces a unique challenge shared by organizations that produce live art.
The company’s COVID supervisor, Lauren Kirchner, is charged with establishing the company’s testing protocols and rehearsal guidelines, monitoring public health guidance and more mundane duties like ordering personal protective equipment. “Every day presents some new challenge, new question, new navigation of what comes next,” she says.
Even before COVID, McCaw Hall, where PNB performs, had an HVAC system with “higher-grade MERV filtration than is recommended by the CDC,” says Kirchner. But venue engineers “went through and assessed everything at the start COVID to make sure that it really was functioning the way that it needed to be for everyone to be as safe as possible.”
PNB’s company dancers and professional division students undergo stringent testing, says Kirchner, but ‘The Nutcracker’ presents new challenges for handling COVID. Unlike other ballets, its cast — and audience — includes children too young to be vaccinated.
“In rehearsals, everyone is masked at all times,” says Kirchner, with student dancers rehearsing in two separate casts “so that if we have an exposure, we still have one cast.” The children are also double-cast to keep casts smaller.
Vaccinated adult dancers will be able to perform without masks on, but even onstage, the children performers will wear masks. These, Ryan notes, are custom made by the costume department to match the children’s costumes. “The angels have cute little gold ones,” she says.
The audience is also required to wear masks at all times; the only exception is while eating or drinking during intermission, which is only allowed in the lobby. Audience members are also physically distanced from each other in the auditorium.
In setting her COVID guidelines, Kirchner has collaborated with other local arts organizations in the ballet world, Seattle and King County and beyond. “We are in very regular communication with other arts organizations … our marketing and development team is constantly communicating with our local theaters, seeing what the Opera is doing, the Rep is doing,” she says.
Coordinating with other venues has helped to show a level of care across the city’s arts and culture industry as venues grapple with reopening. “I think it makes it feel good to the audience members as well that it’s a community approach and not just a one-off [or] something that only we’re doing,” she says.
In September, PNB successfully returned to live performance with an evening of ballets choreographed by Alejandro Cerrudo. Ryan appreciated the energy of performing for a live audience more than ever. “One thing I noticed … is every performance feels different, and that’s something we forgot, too,” she says.
‘The Nutcracker’ will be different in other ways this year. To limit its young performers’ potential exposure to COVID, PNB is adjusting some of the ballet’s choreography in especially crowded scenes, like the ballet’s party scene, to minimize contact between adult dancers and children, says Kirchner.
And even vaccinated dancers wear masks whenever they’re not performing. “Even though we’re tested for every show, we’re still walking around backstage with masks and we just take them off to perform and then we put them right back on as soon as we’re in the wings,” says Ryan. “It’s intense. It messes up our lipstick, but it’s OK.”
It’s all part of a larger system of bringing dancers back onto stages, and helping them stay there. Because Kirchner has been so conservative in setting guidelines, she says, PNB was able to keep its dancers safe for all of last season, and she hopes her cautious approach will keep company members comfortable as PNB opens up with productions like ‘The Nutcracker.’ “I think the dancers really trusted the process,” she says.
The Nutcracker is back! Gather your loved ones for “George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker” at Pacific Northwest Ballet. With its classic score, thrilling dance, vibrant scenery and costumes, and magical story, “The Nutcracker” is the perfect centerpiece for a Northwest holiday.