• Zoe Phillips

Socially Distanced Sugarplum fairies

As “Nutcracker” rain checks itself into 2021, we must recognize the ramifications of its loss.

It’s said that every theatre is inhabited by at least one ghost, and contrary to legends propagated by Halloween, these ghosts do not like the dark. Thus, when the curtain falls and a theatre’s house empties, an employee will leave a light — a ghost light — to burn onstage until the performers return. Across the world, ghost lights have remained on and untouched for months. But the lives of performers continue offstage, each day adding pressure to find performance spaces on digital platforms. What happens when the ghost lights keep burning and we’re left with a stage wholly mediated by posts, shares, comments and likes? 

The New York City Ballet cancelled its famous five-week run of “The Nutcracker” on Thursday, citing advice from government officials and medical professionals regarding dangers of the coronavirus. The nixed Christmas spectacle means the company won’t return to the stage until 2021. The news comes with a certain sense of domino-tipping: Who will be next? The Joffrey Ballet in Chicago already cancelled their version of the show, and San Francisco Ballet is waiting for news from the city’s government to add sugarplums to their calendar. As the pandemic builds into a second wave cascading across the United States, the future of in-person performance jumps further and further into an increasingly unstable future. 


Soon the ghost lights will need new bulbs. 


Cancelled shows are nothing new in 2020. At this point, NYCB has cancelled its Spring, Summer and Fall seasons, along with two galas — but losing the “The Nutcracker” is a much deeper wound, and it’s one that will be much harder to heal. 


The popularity of the beloved Christmas show is underscored by its commercialized success outside of the theatre: The Tchaikovsky score makes its way into December car commercials, the Sugar Plum puns are well-exploited by American marketing and the Nutcracker doll sometimes feels as well known as Santa Claus himself. Put simply, the annual mass production of Snowflakes and Rat Kings makes “Nutcracker” the singular poster child for all of ballet. 


Behind the curtain, though, the Land of Sweets is also one of opportunity. Increased numbers of performances mean longer cast lists —  students earn spots in the huge ensemble and young professionals gain breakout roles that they’d usually never be in line for. The annual nature of “Nutcracker” also makes progressive reform more financially feasible: Recent years have spurred positive conversations about the restaging of previously problematic representations in the Chinese tea and Arabian coffee divertissements. Older (and sometimes still current) versions of the two sections tend to include embarrassingly derogatory depictions of Eastern cultures, but recent years have seen an uptick in reform: Phil Chan and Georgina Pazcoguin launched their “Final Bow for Yellowface” campaign after successfully petitioning NYCB to change their Chinese divertissement in 2017. Other companies have restaged the setting of the whole show to reflect the communities they serve. Joffrey Ballet’s version takes place at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Last year, NYCB also cast its first Black “Marie,” the preteen main character of the whole show. Albeit quite overdue, “Nutcracker”has operated as the catalyst of many larger initiatives for the potential of progressive reform in classical ballet. 


The diversity of the ballet’s audience also changes come December. Grandparents sit next to grandchildren and gaggles of girlfriends make yearly pilgrimages to the opera houses. Swarms of schoolchildren attend matinee field trips and many companies also take their dancers to nursing homes and hospitals. “The Nutcracker” is very often the first piece of dance anyone will see, and it’s often cited as the reason a dancer begins taking lessons. 


These opportunities of accessibility are beautiful side effects of the show’s financial magic: Profit. In 2017, the show represented an average of 48 percent of overall season revenues in American ballet companies. NYCB makes $15.3 million from “Nutcracker” ticket sales and $35 million from the show in total. To compare, the company lost only $8 million when they cancelled their entire Spring season and gala in March. 


In essence, companies and schools operate on a financial model wholly dependent on the guaranteed success of toy soldiers and waltzing flowers — this industry is scaffolded, framed and founded by one production. But now, the coronavirus has stolen Christmas. 


For NYCB, these losses will mean dipping far further into their endowment than ever before. It means an elongated unemployment status for their artists and employees. It also means cancelled community outreach, fewer opportunities for new representation and lost chances to inspire a new generation of dance students. The effects cut deep, but for other smaller companies, and especially dance schools, a cancelled “Nutcracker” could be the final nail in the coffin. 


Many industry professionals express disappointment: Why do the theatres remain closed while restrictions for basketball arenas begin to lift? Why are athletes returning to practice while dancers remain cloistered in their homes? 


Like many other questions, the answer is money: For-profit sports organizations have enough in their bank to support limited social distancing capacities. NYCB’s executive director said that an audience of only 20 percent capacity would be “economically impossible.” If it’s economically impossible for City Ballet, the implications for local and regional companies or schools is depressingly foreboding. 


So the ghost lights will keep burning. The theatres will remain locked. The dancers, musicians, designers, stagehands, wardrobe staff and others will stay unemployed. On the other hand, we will keep finding new ways to consume dance: on our phones while brushing our teeth, on our TVs in the living room or perhaps in the kitchen while tossing a salad. But the increasing ingenuity of such platforms does not mean the suffering has lessened — in fact it’s about to get a whole lot worse. 


As more shows fall off the calendar, it becomes increasingly necessary to reflect on the intrinsic value of these pieces of art. As “Nutcracker” rain checks itself into 2021, we must recognize the ramifications of its loss. For those who are able, such recognition can look like financial donations, but it’s also important to remain vocal in the assessment of “Nutcracker”’s cultural and community value. Its music is not meant only for car commercials and its characters are not just Christmas cookie designs. It’s an institution of performance that supports an entire industry, often with diverse audiences and increasingly inclusive casting. So we can donate, but we can also tweet and post and stream and comment. We can talk and chat and yell from the rooftops, because society only values what we tell it to — we cannot forget to tell it about dance. 

This article was originally published in The Michigan Daily on June 24, 2020 as part of the series "Ghost lights and Instagram likes."

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Updated 2020. Many thanks to Emily Considine for the header art at the top of my page!