‘The Nutcracker’ Returns, With New Rules for Children

There will be dancing snowflakes, spirited sword fights and a visit to the Land of Sweets.

But in November, when New York City Ballet performs its first live “Nutcracker” in two years, one staple will be missing: children under 12, who typically fill the stage playing angels, mice, revelers and candy canes, and are often cast in the starring roles of Marie and the Prince.

As dance companies around the country prepare for a new season amid a resurgence of the coronavirus, many are retooling “The Nutcracker,” the holiday classic that each year draws large audiences of children and their families.

Some are imposing restrictions on performers and audience members under 12, who remain ineligible for vaccines. Others are trying to minimize contact between young artists and other dancers, by holding auditions over Zoom or equipping costumes with face masks.

New York City Ballet announced Thursday it would limit its cast to performers 12 and older as part of safety protocols for its 47-show run of “George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker,” which opens the day after Thanksgiving and ends in January. Children under 12 will still be allowed in the audience, though they will have to provide negative virus test results.

“This is really the only way we can get this production on safely,” Jonathan Stafford, the artistic director of New York City Ballet, said in an interview. He said the company is redesigning costumes to accommodate older, bigger children and casting taller adults in some scenes to ensure a visible height difference. The company has also hired an epidemiologist to consult on “Nutcracker” and other productions.

Children under 12 will not be allowed at other shows during the company’s season, only “The Nutcracker.” City Ballet, like many dance companies, is asking that audience members over 12 provide proof of vaccination to gain entry to “Nutcracker” and other performances this season; they are also being required to wear masks.

The stakes for “Nutcracker” this year are especially high. The show will be a test of whether dance companies, which halted indoor performances for much of the pandemic, can operate safely.

After enduring steep losses, many companies are hoping for a comeback with “Nutcracker,” a financial lifeline in normal times. New York City Ballet, for example, typically receives about $15 million in ticket revenue from the show, almost half its yearly total.

“We cannot go another year without this type of event that brings families into the theater, that provides a glimpse of what the world of ballet is like in an accessible way,” Stafford said.

As theaters and concerts halls reopen, arts groups have struggled with how to handle young performers and audience members.

Some children’s choruses and musical groups are on indefinite hiatus. Many performing arts venues, including Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall and the Metropolitan Opera, have announced plans to exclude children under 12 from attending performances until a vaccine is available.

Concerns about the spread of the virus have forced arts leaders to be creative.

The Met decided to cast an older, vaccinated boy in the role of a young Charles Blow, an Opinion columnist for The New York Times whose memoir is the inspiration for the opera “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” which opens in September. The Met is also having sopranos augment the voices of its children’s chorus in some productions, such as Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov,” since under-12 chorus members are not currently permitted inside the opera house.

“Children are a major part of the Met experience, both as part of the audience and as performers,” said Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager. “But that part of the Met is going to have to ease its way back as the vaccinations become more widely available.”

“The Nutcracker” is especially challenging in a pandemic. Productions vary, but can involve casts of more than 100 children, in addition to dozens of adult dancers, musicians and stagehands. In many productions, children are a fixture, in scenes like the Christmas Eve party and the battle between the Nutcracker and the Mouse King.

Crowding backstage is inevitable, and dressing rooms can feel like petri dishes.

“It was hard during normal times to make it through ‘The Nutcracker,’ if we were attending 33 performances, without getting a little bit of a cold or something,” said Greg Cameron, president and chief executive of the Joffrey Ballet in Chicago.

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    To protect against an outbreak, the Joffrey is not having performers under 12, is enhancing cleaning protocols, and will be washing costumes more frequently. “We’re cautiously optimistic that it’s going to work,” Cameron said.

    Many companies, eager to maintain the family spirit of the show, have decided to allow children under 12 in the audience, though only with test results. It is unclear, however, if parents will go through the hassle of arranging tests for their children to attend the show.

    Arts leaders worry ticket sales could suffer amid the new rules.

    “It’s the thing that wakes me up at night,” said Shelly Power, executive director of the Philadelphia Ballet, which will require audience members under 12 to provide test results. “I want to bring the traditions back and at the same time keep people safe.”

    In some places, the restrictions have provoked pushback from parents. The Kansas City Ballet came under fire recently when it announced it would not allow children under 12 to attend. The company is also reducing its “Nutcracker” cast of children by 65 percent.

    “Our ultimate goal, of course, is to try and get everyone — both students onstage and audiences in the theater — to be able to come and see not only our ‘Nutcracker’ production, but everything we’re doing this year,” said Jeffrey J. Bentley, the ballet’s executive director.

    In Kansas City, “Nutcracker” is a tradition that dates back more than three decades, though it was canceled last year, along with productions across the country. Parents with young children said they were disappointed they would not be able to partake again this year.

    Adam Travis, an accountant in Kansas City, had hoped to take his two daughters, who are 9 and 4 and taking ballet classes, to see the show. The production is a family tradition: They get dressed up, go out to dinner and sit in the same seats each year.

    “It was kind of a letdown,” Travis said. “We are just starting to get to a return-to-normal phase.”

    In New York and other large cities, where auditions for the “Nutcracker” are fiercely competitive, children under 12 will likely be disappointed to miss another opportunity to perform in the show. Many spend years awaiting a chance to perform in it, and it’s a rite of passage for aspiring dancers. The spotlight will fall this year instead on teenage dancers, who are often overshadowed in the production by their younger, more squirrelly counterparts.

    “There are parents who have an 8-year-old kid, a 9-year-old kid, a 10-year-old kid, who know that this is the window for their kid to be in ‘The Nutcracker,’” said Stafford of City Ballet. “It’s going to be tough and they’re going to have to work through that with their kids, who will also be disappointed that they won’t get a chance at it this year.”

    Despite the extra vigilance, many dancers said they were excited to have the chance to return to the stage.

    The Louisville Ballet held auditions late last month, with strict rules about masks and a grid on the floor to remind young dancers about social distancing. Eighty children auditioned, down from about 150 before the pandemic.

    “You could tell some of them were a bit deer-in-the-headlights about it, but still very happy and excited,” said Helen Daigle, who oversees the children’s cast.

    She said the company was committed to staging the “Nutcracker,” despite the pandemic, though she said safety would be the priority.

    “If we end up with half a cast of soldiers because somebody gets sick and we have to go through quarantine protocols, we will do it,” she said. “We will manage as we need to.”

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