Ashley Murphy-Wilson hosting The Washington Ballet's The Nutcracker Tea Party at Home. Credit: Mary Scott Manning

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The cast list for The Nutcracker usually comes out on a Friday in early fall at Maryland Youth Ballet (MYB), a pre-professional school in Silver Spring. In the days before the announcement, the teachers observe their classes even more closely than usual in order to decide which dancers get which roles. Their determinations are placed in envelopes, one for each student, along with a schedule of rehearsals and performances.

“We’re all nervous the entire week,” says Aaliyahmarie, 14. Over the past four years, her roles have included a mouse, a party girl, a flower, and a snowflake.

Which role they get matters, because students will spend the next weeks and months learning to embody their characters. For many families, the rehearsal and performance schedule dictates their holiday plans, affecting how far they can travel and how long they are gone. 

Last year on that fateful Friday, Aaliyahmarie and her classmates finished up advanced pointe—with a bow to the instructor on the way out—and hurried to the front desk, eager for their envelopes. 

“Once we open it, we’re all yelling,” she remembers. “We all just like to see what we got as a group.” 

But the coronavirus pandemic has not spared even the most beloved holiday traditions, and social distancing guidelines means that performances cannot happen as usual this year.

Some annual holiday dances have been reimagined for an online format. MYB produced The Nutcracker Storybook, a filmed version that premieres this month. The Washington School of Ballet (TWSB) had students learn choreography remotely and film themselves at home; their recordings are being compiled into a performance performers can share with friends.

Others events have been canceled altogether, including the Dance Institute of Washington’s (DIW) The Spirit of Kwanzaa and the holiday dances that Bethesda Conservatory of Dance students perform at local assisted living communities. 

Though these holiday shows can be exhausting for students, cutting into family time and keeping the younger ones up past their bedtimes, they often loom large in the dancers’ minds and memories. They become part of families’ traditions and mark growth in strength and skill. A ballerina in The Nutcracker can watch herself progress through the ranks each year from a mouse up to the Sugar Plum Fairy. 

The loss can be deeply felt. Carla Camargo of DIW says their annual winter performance provides students an opportunity to connect with history and ancestors.

“[T]he healing The Spirit of Kwanzaa has brought to our students is a missing component that we have to now approach differently due to our virtual state,” she writes in an email. 

Riley, 11, puts the matter simply: “Christmas sometimes just feels a little more cheerful when I’m dancing in a Nutcracker performance.”

For the past two seasons, Riley joined the cast of the touring companies that performed The Nutcracker at the Kennedy Center. This year he portrayed Fritz, Clara’s mischievous little brother, in MYB’s filmed production. For his role, rehearsals began over Zoom and transitioned to the school’s studio space in late November. Everyone danced in his or her own taped-off square. While the arrangement complied with local public health guidance, Riley says it could feel “a bit awkward.” 

“Normally in class, all I have to worry about is accidentally bumping into another person,” he says. “Now we have to, like, stay in the six-foot box.” 

Students also wear masks and even have versions specially made to match their Nutcracker costumes, “which is really fun,” Riley says. His was blue and sea green. 

For Anna, 17, wearing the mask proved a welcome artistic challenge. She was cast as the Sugar Plum Fairy in MYB’s production, and she had to find a way to express the “magical-ness” of the character without using her face.  

“I tried to communicate that with both the musicality of that, like the movements and the choreography, finding different places where I could accent a step or a different part of the music to make it kind of twinkly in a way, kind of fairy-like,” she says. 

Rehearsal was “obviously tedious,” but also a wonder to watch come to life, she says. MYB filmed its Nutcracker at its studio in Silver Spring. Managing Montgomery County’s 10-person cap on indoor gatherings became its own choreography. For example, when Anna danced a solo variation, multiple teachers could be in the room, giving corrections. But when the Sugar Plum “attendants” joined her, the same number of people had to leave.

Still, several dancers noted that digital dance has a few benefits over live performance.

“If we messed up, we could do it again,” says Aaliyahmarie, who danced as Marzipan, one of the candies in the Nutcracker’s “Land of the Sweets,” in MYB’s production this year. “Onstage if you, like, slip and fall, that’s it.”

Gabrielle, 10, a dancer with TWSB, felt hopeful that this year, more of her family, “scattered everywhere” in Florida and New York and Canada, would get to see the show, which was recorded in students’ homes and stitched together.

Other dancers, understandably weary of Zoom, decided against participating in a virtual performance; many fully opted out of ballet, both classes and Nutcracker, for the semester. Monica Stephenson, head of school at TWSB’s Southeast Campus, estimated that about 100 to 150 fewer students participated this year, proportional to the overall reduction in enrollment.

“It was just extra online ballet, and I felt like it just wasn’t really worth it,” says Jane, 11, another TWSB dancer. “The part that I love [about] Nutcracker is performing with my friends, being onstage and doing the rehearsals.” 

 All of the dancers interviewed say togetherness was the most special part of performing in a holiday show, and each shared a favorite memory that technology could not quite replicate. 

Aaliyahmarie and her friends would bring blankets and pillows from home and create little forts under their dressing room vanities, a place to talk and take naps. Besides dancing, Jane liked hanging out backstage and getting to know the stagehands. 

Tilly, 11, was a toy soldier last year in The Washington Ballet’s production and remembered running through the tunnel below the stage, prop in hand. “Then you would see the rats come off the stage, and then you’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, we’re about to do this.'”

A favorite memory of Gabrielle’s was racing down the hall after her part and taking the hair pins out (“because sometimes it hurts a lot”). She and her friends would watch the rest of the show from the green room and wait to be picked up.

For Lolo, 12, the The Spirit of Kwanzaa always helps ring in the holidays. 

“It’s become a tradition in a way, to have Kwanzaa before Christmas, to celebrate, to dance with everyone,” she says.

Isabella, 12, shared a similar feeling about going downtown for The Washington Ballet’s production: “We would pass by shops with decorations and Christmas lights, and it was that warm feeling, even though it was cold outside, like this is where you belong.” 

And those few minutes of performance redeemed the long hours of practice for Jada, 16, of DIW.

“It gets electric when we’re on an actual stage, and you get all the energy back from the audience,” she sys. “Just hearing the applause is so rewarding, and like this is what I’ve worked for.” 

Without a year-end performance, her motivation is low. “It feels like we’re not working toward anything. Each day runs into the next,” she says. 

Elizabeth, Jane’s mother, observed that ballet at her daughter’s age is drill-based, not performance-based, and their practices are often intense core workouts. 

The Nutcracker really gives them that performance opportunity that makes it all worthwhile,” she says. 

The loss hits especially hard for students whose schools had to cancel completely. Colleen Snyder, owner and director of Bethesda Conservatory of Dance, shared that their performances for local assisted living communities are the most intimate all year. Dancers perform just steps away from audience members, at eye level.

“It allows for personal interaction, eye contact, and they can hear the audience speak to them,” Snyder writes in an email. “It’s good for everyone, and our dancers, even the youngest, miss the sense of purpose.”

Nevertheless, the dancers interviewed could not stop saying how grateful they felt for the opportunities given to them, even now. 

“I’m still thankful that I’m able to dance right now, because there are so many people around the world who wish they could dance in this time, but they’re not able to, because they don’t have the resources, the material,” she says. “You just have to be really thankful that you’re able to be … over Zoom, even if you don’t enjoy it or like it.”

Gabrielle, Isabella, and Tilly still enjoyed being clowns this year, donning rainbow suspenders and painting on their own lipstick-red cheeks—not the full look, but “still a lot of fun” for an online version. 

“Even though it looked a lot different and it felt a lot different, it still had that special Nutcracker feeling,” says Tilly. 

For high school seniors, this year is the last they can perform in holiday dances as students—and Anna of MYB had assumed her school’s Nutcracker would not happen at all. She was full of praise for her teachers for pulling together its video production and giving her the chance to perform the Sugar Plum Fairy, her dream role since starting ballet. 

“I can still say I was Sugar Plum. I got to that goal of mine,” she says. “And I just think that’s so incredible that I was still able to do that considering the circumstances and what’s going on in the world today.” 

This year, instead of opening envelopes at the front desk, Aaliyahmarie and her classmates logged into MYB’s “Parent Portal” to find out their roles. Class, rehearsal, and performance have all changed this year. But the anticipation and joy of finding out casting and celebrating with friends—this year, they told each other their roles over text—have not. 

“It was still kind of chaotic, but it was fun,” she says, laughing.

The Dance Institute of Washington will stream its 2019 performance of The Spirit of Kwanzaa during the seven days of Kwanzaa, December 26 to January 1. Maryland Youth Ballet’s The Nutcracker Storybook can be rented or purchased to watch after the premiere on December 19 at 9 p.m. The Washington Ballet‘s The Nutcracker Tea Party at Home is currently available to stream. The company’s short film Clara’s Christmas Eve Dream is streaming on Marquee TV in English and Spanish.