Ballet as an art form is known for pushing boundaries — to jump higher and travel farther. Due to pandemic protocols, local dance companies are suddenly having to pivot on a dime.
In studios across the metro area, dancers in protective masks practice at barres marked for social distancing. They stretch and turn inside 5-foot squares taped on the floor. Such parameters are the new normal for a performance art where the body is the instrument, working in close physical proximity to others is at its heart, and vigorous physical activity is its lifeblood.
So as the coronavirus pandemic continues into the fall season, it has dealt an especially hard blow to dance companies. Theaters, filled at a socially distanced one-fourth capacity, couldn’t pay for ballet production runs, so many companies have cancelled their annual “Nutcrackers.” But for reasons other than financial ones, Atlanta Ballet, Terminus Modern Ballet Theatre and Ballethnic Dance Company have worked within pandemic guidelines to spin the centuries-old art form together with new technology, and to celebrate the holidays in surprising ways.
Arturo Jacobus, president and CEO of Atlanta Ballet, cancelled the company’s spring and fall productions, in addition to what would have been it debut of “The Nutcracker” at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre. Jacobus has nonetheless managed to keep the company’s 150 employees on the payroll and ready for stage production through the end of the fiscal year and hopefully beyond. But these measures don’t necessarily reach ticket buyers, whose loyalty is a top priority.
"It was very important to find a way to provide those patrons with some joy over the holiday season and some experience of dance and “The Nutcracker,” Jacobus said, “and not let the season pass without something as close to the real experience as we could possibly come up with.”
Hence, European tradition will meet American pop culture in “The Nutcracker" 2020 Experience, a multi-platform plan to engage audiences through social media, a virtual production and not least, a pop-up drive-in movie viewing of Atlanta Ballet’s two-year-old production choreographed by Yuri Possokhov Dec. 2-6.
Company videographer Brian Wallenberg and artistic director Gennadi Nedvigin have painstakingly edited together footage from previously recorded performances to recreate what is essentially the full ballet, Jacobus said. The film will appear on a 55-foot movie screen set up in the the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre parking lot. Viewers can have pre-ordered concessions and gift items delivered to their vehicles, and the venue’s traffic circle will be decked with a socially distanced marketplace.
For those who prefer to watch the video in the privacy of their own homes, audiences can access a streaming version, open for 72-hour window, available through Atlanta Ballet’s website.
Typically, the Atlanta Ballet’s production of “Nutcracker” generates one-fourth of the company’s annual revenue. This year, Jacobus expects to break even. But he hopes audiences will appreciate Atlanta Ballet’s effort to give them a holiday experience in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. “We want them to go away feeling satisfied that we’ve delivered on something meaningful and joyful.”
Heath Gill, co-founder of Terminus Modern Ballet Theatre, has taken a different spin on holiday programming. He’s put together a distinctive narrative work for film, starting with a voice of Christmas past.
Chris Kayser, known for portraying Scrooge in the Alliance Theatre’s “A Christmas Carol,” will bring his beloved character’s voice to “Marley was Dead, To Begin With,” a world premiere based on Charles Dickens' literary classic. It’s part of Terminus' all-digital season designed, in part, to keep Terminus' core artists and extended family of collaborators engaged in the creative process through the pandemic.
As with most of Terminus’ repertoire, “Marley" isn’t the usual take on Dickens’ classic. Instead, Gill focuses on the relationship between penny-pinching Scrooge and his former business partner Marley, the restless harbinger of the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future, who has been re-envisioned here as a woman performed by Terminus rising star Laura Morton.
Credit: Daylilies Photography
Credit: Daylilies Photography
Gill calls the multilayered work a “genre-bending conglomeration of art forms” where dance’s human and ethereal qualities blend with the wit and lyricism of Dickens' prose spoken by Kayser and other voice-over actors, folded into Jacob Ryan Smith’s score and brought to life by Terminus dancers.
“It’s about transporting people, giving them a chance to find some moment of inspiration or an opportunity to reflect, or even just slow down and share a moment with a friend," Gill said. "We’re all so isolated right now, but I hope we can give families an opportunity to just be together and share something.”
While considering holiday programming this year, Nena Gilreath, co-founder of Ballethnic Dance Company, took into account how hard the health crisis hit the organization’s largely Black community.
"We needed to be live,” Gilreath said. “We discovered early on, that if we could be face-to-face, that just brings the support that we all need, to be able to share collective ideas of how we’re going to move through the pandemic,” she said. “We needed a common goal.”
Ballethnic’s newly envisioned “Urban Nutcracker Experience” is a hybrid of virtual and live performance that runs Dec. 12-13 at the Georgia International Convention Center and will be live-streamed through the end of December.
The venue’s spacious ballroom will provide room for a large stage flanked by two smaller ones decorated with production scenery. The audience, which will be contained in small family groups, will be seated in living-room style arrangements throughout the space. Video projections from recent productions will augment a small cast production on stage.
During the Party Scene, Gilreath says audience members will be encouraged to get up and dance within their pods while the production’s beloved Auburn Avenue characters— like Big Mama, the Drunk and the Flirty Newlywed — kick up their heels on stage and screen.
In the battle scene, youngsters in sleek masked rat costumes will scamper through an old theater on screen. Suddenly, live dancers dressed as the red-eyed rodents will scurry through the audience. For Gilreath, it’s a full circle moment to see her students from the East Athens Educational Dance Center make their virtual “Nutcracker” debut. She and her husband Waverly Lucas founded the company 30 years ago to give underexposed youth a chance to study and perform classical ballet.
Despite pandemic restrictions, each company has found ways to celebrate the holidays through dance, and will likely to reap fringe benefits. As Atlanta Ballet looks to move its “Nutcracker” to the Cobb Energy Centre in the future, they’ll have an indelible record of the production’s first two seasons at the historic Fox Theatre and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
Terminus' world-class artists may gain international visibility as they learn the intricacies of the film medium. Like Gill, Gilreath has enjoyed the challenge of blending live dance with film’s many facets while learning to "see things through two different mediums,” she said. "It’s really stretching all of us.”
Atlanta Ballet. “The Nutcracker” 2020 Experience. Drive-in Movie 7 p.m. Dec. 2-6. $110-$150 per vehicle. Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, 2800 Cobb Galleria Parkway, Atlanta. “The Nutcracker” On-Demand available online Nov. 16-Dec. 27. $25 for 72-hour live link. atlantaballet.com.
Ballethnic Dance Company. “Urban Nutcracker Experience.” Live shows at 3 and 7:30 p.m. Dec. 12-13. Georgia International Convention Center, 2000 Convention Center Concourse, College Park. 404-762-1416, ballethnic.org.
Terminus Modern Ballet Theatre. “Marley Was Dead, To Begin With.” Online Dec. 18-Jan. 22. $37.71-$53.88, 470-733-8274, terminus-serenbe.com.
The Georgia Ballet. “The Nutcracker” A Drive-In Experience. 7 p.m. Dec. 11-13. $75 per vehicle, Aviation History and Technology Center, 555 Perrin Road, Marietta. Live pre-show Q&A with select cast members at 6 p.m. 770-528-0881, georgiaballet.org.
Georgia Dance Theatre. “The Nutcracker Ballet” live performance. 7 p.m. Dec. 5, 2 and 6 p.m. Dec. 6. $25. Crowne Plaza Hotel Grand Ballroom, 201 Aberdeen Pkwy, Peachtree City. 770-631-3128, www.gadance.com.
Gwinnett Ballet Theatre. “The Nutcracker" live performance. Dec. 4-20. Live orchestra plays for Dec. 18-20 shows only. $37-$69.50. Limited seating sold in groups of four. Infinite Energy Theater, 6400 Sugarloaf Parkway, Duluth. Virtual access $60 for two-week window beginning Dec. 4. 770-237-0046, gwinnettballet.org.