In another pandemic-related blow to Philadelphia arts and culture, Pennsylvania Ballet has canceled this year’s production of The Nutcracker.
Citing safety concerns for both audience and artists, the company said it will not put on its annual presentation of the George Balanchine classic set to Tchaikovsky’s score. It will be the first time Pennsylvania Ballet has not mounted the show since the beginning of the tradition in 1968, just a few years after the company was founded.
The Nutcracker, which typically runs for three weeks at the Academy of Music at Christmastime, is a very first performing arts event for any number of children. It is also an important entry point into the art form — cited by many a balletomane as the first spark in a lifelong interest.
“It’s a huge hit for us,” said Pennsylvania Ballet executive director Shelly Power. “It just keeps us so relevant in people’s minds in an incredible way and engages us with new patrons and people who have been going to ballet for years on end. So, it’s really sad.”
The Nutcracker also underpins the finances of Pennsylvania Ballet, as it does at many ballet companies across the U.S. Those three weeks in December account for half of Pennsylvania Ballet’s annual ticket revenue, Power said.
By the same token, she said, “our first and foremost concern is everyone’s safety.”
“For everyone to be safe at this moment, it would be impossible for us to do a show,” said artistic director Angel Corella.
The cancellation represents a larger loss, says Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance president Maud Lyon.
“What immediately leaps to mind is that this is not just The Nutcracker. What we are going to be experiencing, in particular in the performing arts, is the pause in many cherished traditions. Look at Wawa Welcome America and no fireworks this year. Look at Donald Dumpson’s gospel event at the Kimmel Center,” Lyon said, referring to Soulful Christmas.
“These are things people look forward to and do every year,” she said, “and they are not possible as the performing arts are unable to rehearse and perform.”
New York City Ballet also recently announced cancellation of its Nutcracker, which would have run for five weeks at Lincoln Center. Joffrey Ballet in Chicago has also scrapped its Nutcracker for this year.
In addition to The Nutcracker’s cancellation, Pennsylvania Ballet is moving another storybook ballet, Cinderella, from October to the spring. The disappearance of an entire fall season throws out of work not only the company’s dancers, but also its 64-member orchestra. Nutcracker rehearsals and this year’s 27 performances account for the single-largest chunk of work for many of the area’s freelance musicians.
“It’s devastating to many,” said Pennsylvania Ballet harpist Mindy Cutcher. “There are musicians who really count on that last quarter of the year. It’s not just Nutcracker. All of us who play Nutcracker are also doing other things like church services and choirs and Christmas parties and lots of other income that’s not going to happen.”
The full consequences on Pennsylvania Ballet’s finances for the fiscal year starting in August are not fully known, said Power. “We are showing a deficit for next year and are working through how we can reduce that,” she said.
To help compensate for the $2.5 to $3 million in lost Nutcracker revenue, the company has laid off 13 staff members, furloughing another eight. Pay is being slashed for the company’s remaining 15 staff members on a sliding scale; the exact amounts, still under consideration, will range from 5% to 20%.
It is unclear when the company’s 46 dancers might return. They are currently laid off for the summer, as they normally are, but instead of returning in August, they are tentatively seen as coming back to work in January to begin rehearsing for a shortened season.
An abbreviated season would consist of a Swan Lake opening in February; George Balanchine’s Stars & Stripes with Ballet Imperial and Symphony in C in March; and Cinderella in May.
In the meantime, eight weeks of online rehearsal and classes with dancers concluded last week. “It was very emotional, I have to say,” said Corella of the last session on Friday. The virtual contact has been helpful, but “challenging,” he said.
“Because of the speed of the time of the music traveling over the internet, everyone had different speeds in their homes,” which meant the syncing of sound and movement wasn’t uniform — an obvious hurdle to dance.
Resumption of a season in January assumes the re-opening of the Kimmel Center, which operates the Academy of Music and currently has all but closed the doors of its halls through the end of 2020. If the Academy doesn’t reopen in the new year, Pennsylvania Ballet might explore a “demi-season,” though that would have a domino effect.
“It would be hard to put on Swan Lake at the Annenberg,” said Power, of the smaller Annenberg Center in West Philadelphia. If we go to a smaller theater, we would change the repertoire.”
The Kimmel maintains that it has not closed its halls outright and would re-open before Jan. 1 for any of its resident companies that would want to pay extra costs associated with operations and extra safety precautions. Several companies, however, said the Kimmel has not specified what those higher costs would be.
A Kimmel spokesperson said the arts center is still gathering information from health officials and it is too early to know what kind of safety protocols will be mandated.
Regardless, Power said, safe practices would likely dictate socially distanced seating in the Academy, which would in turn reduce ticket revenue. “What we do know is that those safety measures will be costly and the economics of social distancing will not pay the bills,” she said.
Nutcracker is “one of those traditions in everyone’s lives, and we are really trying to get back to normal, whatever normal is, and this would have really helped,” said Power. “But I am optimistic that we can gather again, people are going to be hungrier than ever for the arts.”