As The Nutcracker returns to Canadian stages, ballet companies find new balances on COVID-19 and cultural stereotypes

Tirion Law and Sipheishle November – respectively the fairy Sugar Plum and The Nutcracker – rehearse for the National Ballet of Canada’s production of Tchaikovsky’s classical ballet.Karolina Kuras / Courtesy of the National Ballet of Canada

The fairy and Sugar Plum rider are done with social distancing.

Tchaikovsky’s beloved Nutcracker is back in ballet companies across the country after COVID-19 restrictions canceled nearly two years of live dance performances. And while the main story remains the same – after a boisterous holiday party, a young girl is taken to a magical land by her new nutcracker doll, who turns out to be a prince – many companies have changed their productions. Uncle Drosselmeyer will not be wearing an N95 mask, but the pandemic and the societal changes that come with it are affecting how the show is to play out.

Since North American companies began to stage versions of Nutcracker in the 1940s, many supporting roles were played by children. Since COVID-19 vaccines were not available to Canadians under 12 at the start of rehearsals, few young artists are participating this year. Also at stake: a global push to tackle racial stereotypes in ballet, such as potentially problematic “Arab” and “Chinese” dances in ballet. Nutcrackerthe second act of. Many productions creatively navigate all of these changes by removing entire scenes, introducing new choreography, or both.

Ballet companies are betting heavily on these 2021 holiday performances. According to Dance / USA, a service organization that includes Canadian members, Nutcracker accounts for 48 percent of the average company’s annual ticket sales. From 2008 to 2019, the vacation favorite’s total performance increased by around 30% in the US and Canada, and ticket prices doubled. There is so much financial dependence on Nutcracker, wrote researcher Shakira Segundo, “that the pressure to stay profitable and relevant is now more imperative than ever”.

Here’s a look at how three companies are navigating the changes so that the December tradition can continue.

Baby mice will be conspicuously absent from The National Ballet’s Nutcracker this year, as children under 12 cannot perform.Karolina Kuras / Courtesy of the National Ballet of Canada

Discounted youth tickets to the Nutcracker are available, but unvaccinated children will need same-day COVID-19 tests to attend.Karolina Kuras / Courtesy of the National Ballet of Canada

National Ballet of Canada


Nutcracker has long been a family affair for Tanya Howard of the National Ballet. Since her promotion in 2007 to the rank of first soloist, she has danced several of her main roles, including the Snow Queen and the Bee in the Flower waltz. His daughter Lia, now 12, performed in production as a marzipan lamb. And her 9-year-old son Benjamin loves walking the catwalks to see the machines sprinkling fake snow on the stage. In recent years, her husband would sometimes bring food into the green room so that the family could have dinner together before the show.

This year is different. Ms Howard will perform throughout the 22-day race, but there will be no baby mice or lambs, roles typically played by children under 12. Same-day COVID-19 testing is required for unvaccinated children (although discounted tickets are available). And the Four Seasons Center limits the number of people allowed backstage.

In view of all of these restrictions, Mrs Howard and her husband decided not to attend Nutcracker like a family and gave away his free tickets. But they did so without consulting Benjamin. “He was so disappointed,” Ms. Howard said. “I immediately called the box office.” Even she was surprised by her own son’s enthusiasm to go to the ballet on Christmas. “For a dancer Nutcracker is a rite of passage, ”said Ms. Howard, who has performed with the National Ballet since 1998.“ I feel like my kids do too.

Another performing tradition she will miss this year are the Cannon Dolls, famous guests wearing clown costumes who help fire a fake cannon during a tumultuous battle scene between rats and tin soldiers. In 2019, those guests included star frontman Torquil Campbell, comedian Candy Palmater and former Toronto Raptor Kyle Lowry. Mrs. Howard’s all-time favorite is author Margaret Atwood.

This year, vaccinated staff from the National Ballet will take turns firing the cannon. And while it’s unfortunate that celebrity silliness can’t serve as a raffle, Ms Howard is hopeful parents will always bring kids to the show. If her “disgusting” son can handle a COVID-19 test, any child can, she said. “I think the excitement… will wipe out the 15 seconds of the swab.”

Dancers rehearse “The Enchanted Gift,” a new ballet opening with a message about marketing Christmas.Sacha Onychtchenko

Les Grands Ballets Canadiens


For months, Ivan Cavallari, artistic director of the Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montreal, wondered how to re-stage his company’s Act 1 party scene. Nutcracker, which takes place in the sumptuous ballroom of a 19th century house. Typically, the stage is filled with children between the ages of 8 and 11, including a young girl named Clara and her naughty brother Fritz, whose parents organize the rally. The lively choreography is usually a big hit with young people in the audience.

“The question was, ‘What can we do for the children who can come to the theater after two years of a pandemic?’ ”Said Mr. Cavallari.

One fall weekend, he had an idea. The answer wasn’t to rework the party scene – it was to choreograph a whole new ballet himself for the first half of the show, then follow it with the Clara’s journey second act entertainment Nutcracker created by former resident choreographer Fernand Nault. “So literally over the weekend I wrote a story and said to my team, ‘Let’s put some magic together,’” Mr. Cavallari said.

The new double bill was created on Thursday, December 9. The first act, The enchanted gift, presents Professor Nicholas Christmas to the public. One by one, the toy maker’s works come to life, including a toy soldier, Puss in Boots and a harlequin doll. But two witches conspire to steal the professor’s creations, until he wraps the one gift that “stays with humanity forever, which is the gift of love,” Mr. Cavallari said. He hopes parents and children will embrace the anti-marketing message.

The enchanted gift is set to excerpts from the Bachianas Brasileiras suites by Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos, and performed by a live orchestra and opera singer.

“We are happy to be able to return to live music,” said Mr. Cavallari. “We have the set, which is fundamental, I would say, for the trip and coming to the theater and having a Christmas experience.”

The Alberta Ballet’s Nutcracker dispenses with “Arabic” and “Chinese” dances in Act II this year.Paul McGrath

Alberta Ballet


December 2021 brought many changes to Western Canada’s largest ballet company. For starters, due to COVID-19 logistics, the company was unable to bring its version of Nutcracker in Vancouver and Victoria, leaving both cities without major professional production. Back in Calgary and Edmonton, audiences will notice several differences in addition to the missing Act I baby mice.

Amid an international movement to examine how non-white characters are presented in ballet, co-artistic director Christopher Anderson decided to abandon the “Chinese” and “Arab” dances of Act II, when Klara and her prince are transported to the land of Candy and meet characters from around the world, as well as the Sugar Plum fairy.

The Arab dance, or “cafe,” which featured a dancer manipulated by two men wearing feathered sultan’s hats and not much else, had previously raised concerns from customers, Mr. Anderson. His plan is to revise both dances and restore them next year “in a more informed way” after receiving comments from the public, non-Western dance experts and members of the Asian-Canadian community.

It’s a decision applauded by Phil Chan, a dancer and consultant who co-founded Final Bow for Yellowface, a U.S. non-profit organization that works with performing arts groups to enhance performances of Asians on stage and amplify the work of Asian artists. “Undoing” the two dances may be easier, Chan said, but it’s better to have a meaningful speech. “It’s about building a better Nutcracker – that’s the end goal, ”Chan said.

Although Mr. Anderson has not made a commitment to collaborate specifically with Mr. Chan, he is familiar with the work of the nonprofit – for example, helping the Pacific Northwest Ballet in Seattle create a character for “Lucky Cricket “in Nutcracker play in the “Chinese Tea” dance this year.

For now, most of the beloved Alberta Ballet characters are back, including the Snow Czarina who leads Klara on her journey and will pose for photos with fans (while wearing a mask) in the lobby. Almost 30,000 Albertans see the production each year, and in 2022 Mr. Anderson hopes to present a revised Act II that “recaptures the spirit of production” created in 2009 by outgoing artistic director Jean Grand-Maître. “I am delighted with our re-imagining and the evolution of the story,” said Mr. Anderson.

Dancing in the event of a pandemic: more information on The Globe

Last year, The Globe and Mail and leading arts organizations collaborated with seven dance companies across Canada for a physically distant reimagining of Leonard Cohen’s song Anthem, including lyrics about Hope and tribulation took on new meaning at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Globe and Mail

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