'The Nutcracker' Drive-In For A Pandemic Holiday Season
For the first time in 31 years, The San Diego Ballet is changing up their holiday mainstay. When faced with potentially not holding performances of Tchaikovsky's "The Nutcracker" ballet this holiday season, executive director Matt Carney knew they had to find a way — for the audiences and for the dancers.
"We have a strong commitment to our company dancers in providing work for artists," said Carney. "And it never occurred to me to do nothing. And to cancel our season or to not offer anything — it just didn't seem like an option."
This season, the company will grace an outdoor stage in Liberty Station for just five live performances of "The Nutcracker," over two weekends. Audience members will park their cars spaced out and offset from each other in the lot, and will have enough room — an additional parking spot's worth — to set up chairs or a tailgate area, weather permitting. (The show is rain or shine and the stage will be covered.) Each performance will be limited to 30 vehicles. Carney said this separates them from other drive-in performances.
"The Nutcracker" and holiday-themed performances in general — like "The Christmas Carol" or "The Grinch," or singalong renditions of Handel's "The Messiah" — serve a much broader community than the season ticket holders or regular attendees.
"The holiday offerings are, oftentimes, an entry point into the arts for people," said Carney. "It's an important show because it's an entry point for people who don't normally see art throughout the year." Plus, it's a way for the company to inspire a sense of hope, tradition and normalcy for the community.
The choreography and storyline of "The Nutcracker" will be modified slightly to account for social distancing on stage, as well as keep it short enough to be intermission free. For example, the Mother Ginger character will be modified to avoid a gaggle of children in the confined space of the skirt. And other scenes with many couples dancing together will be adjusted to focus only on the central characters.
The cast happens to have married couples and sets of roommates who are already "podding" together, according to Carney, and those dancers will therefore be able to make physical contact on stage. So the classic duets that audiences expect will still be there, like the Sugar Plum Fairy's dance with Cavalier.
Size-wise, the cast is approximately 45 dancers, who have been rehearsing in the studio with major adjustments. In prior years, each weekend the entire cast would be on-site to rehearse together, but this year’s rehearsals are scheduled in small pieces to keep as few people in the building at any given time.
Rehearsals and work as a company have taken many forms during the pandemic. They've tried online only classes, outdoor classes, and now have settled on a hybrid format that combines safe, low-capacity indoor classes with virtual classes. The stops and starts were difficult on the organization at first, each step or step back in the reopening process providing its own set of expenses. And now, with the solution they've found to work best given the restrictions and risks, the company's class operations are cut anywhere from 75-90 percent.
But Carney said that as artists, they're uniquely positioned to come up with creative fixes.
"Especially when you think about choreography and dance. How can you get from point A to point B and have it be compelling? How can you move an audience by moving from point A to point B?" said Carney. "So we're constantly dealing with this creative solution gathering, and this space that we're operating in artistically, it's kind of what we do."
Moving forward, Carney said that artists will have to continue to be flexible, and pay greater attention to collaborating.
"On an organizational level, I think this is a time for deep level collaboration, where perhaps in the past it was more ornamental," Carney said. "I think we're going to dive deeper into more mutually beneficial collaborations."
The San Diego Ballet’s "The Nutcracker" drive-in performances will take place at Liberty Station Nov. 27-29 and Dec. 5-6. Cost is $99 per vehicle (or $139 for VIP front-row parking) and tickets are now on sale.