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'The Nutcracker,' a holiday tradition, goes on amid pandemic protocols


It's that time of year again, people putting up their trees, baking cookies, singing carols and taking children to see the annual production of The Nutcracker ballet.


MARTÍNEZ: Like so many events last year, "The Nutcracker" faced COVID shutdowns. But this year, as they say, the show must go on, albeit with certain safety requirements in place. Washington Post dance critic Sarah Kaufman recently wrote a piece about how ballet companies are accommodating this new way of life under COVID. Sarah, welcome to the show.

SARAH KAUFMAN: Thanks very much.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, what changes have been made behind the scenes for "Nutcracker" productions?

KAUFMAN: Yeah. So the stakes are really high for this year's "Nutcracker." It's, like, the most complicated production ballet companies could have to deal with. In this time of COVID, you might think of it as the Macy's Day Parade of ballet, except in a very small space because it's got hundreds of elaborate costumes, dozens and dozens of characters, sometimes even towering puppet-type giants that come onstage, and new characters and new acts happening every few minutes and a lot of children. So some productions could have 40 to 60 kids onstage at any one time. So COVID enters the scene. And it's an issue because social distancing is really, really difficult when you have all these months of rehearsals going on, lots going on backstage with sets and costume changes and dancers running on and off stage. So in most cases, everyone backstage is wearing a mask - the crew, the staff and also all of the dancers and performers. A lot of companies have also limited their use of children to those 12 years and older. And that's to make sure they can be vaccinated.

MARTÍNEZ: And why does that matter, Sarah, when it comes to "The Nutcracker?" Because if we didn't have COVID, would kids of all ages be involved?

KAUFMAN: Yes. I mean, many times, there are kids as young as 5 or 6 involved in productions to do those cute, little baby mice, little angels - you know, lots of adorability factor.

MARTÍNEZ: And these kids are sharing, I would assume, all kinds of costumes or other things that typically, in COVID, you can't share.

KAUFMAN: Exactly. So now, some companies are using smaller children - so ages 6 and up, for example. The Washington Ballet is one of them. But those kids under the age of 12 are wearing masks onstage as well as off. The parents are in charge of putting on their makeup and doing their hair before they even get to the theater, so that you don't have, you know, kids lining up to get their makeup done by an artist backstage. And those kids, also in the case of The Washington Ballet, will need to present proof of a negative coronavirus test 72 hours before any performance in which they're dancing.

MARTÍNEZ: From a financial perspective, Sarah, how important was it for Nutcracker performances to happen this year?

KAUFMAN: I mean, it's extremely important. It's the production that makes everything else on the calendar possible or helps make it possible. The ticket sales from "The Nutcracker" will help fund the more interesting but financially riskier programming of the rest of the company's season. And of course, all streams of revenue basically vanished for arts organizations last year. So putting on a very lucrative production was a top priority.

MARTÍNEZ: How do cast members, Sarah, feel about all these changes?

KAUFMAN: So every dancer I talked to was extremely excited just to be back onstage. Now, most dancers have had to do all of these rehearsals, which can stretch for weeks and weeks and weeks, in masks. That's generally still the case in ballet company headquarters, that everybody needs to be masked. And that's difficult. No one likes dancing in a mask. But for the most part, the dancers are just so eager to get back into that routine of dancing and giving themselves and their art to the public.

MARTÍNEZ: That's Washington Post dance critic Sarah Kaufman. Sarah, thanks.

KAUFMAN: Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "THE NUTCRACKER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.