Stepping Up: Festival Ballet’s ‘Nutcracker Sweets!’ will go on – online

FESTIVAL BALLET PROVIDENCE will offer the community free of charge its 2020-21 modified production of 'Nutcracker Sweets!' online beginning Thursday through Jan. 10. / COURTESY FESTIVAL BALLET PROVIDENCE
FESTIVAL BALLET PROVIDENCE will offer the community free of charge its 2020-21 modified production of 'Nutcracker Sweets!' online beginning Thursday through Jan. 10. / COURTESY FESTIVAL BALLET PROVIDENCE

PROVIDENCE – For Festival Ballet Providence, the show must go on.

That mentality is not just for the local performing-arts enthusiasts who are in need of a brief escape from the harsh reality that the COVID-19 pandemic has created throughout 2020.

It’s for the performers, too.

This past fall, New England’s second-largest ballet company was using a state grant to prepare to put on a free, in-person outdoor adaptation of its signature holiday performance, “Nutcracker Sweets!”, in lieu of performing indoors due to health and safety regulations. The plan was to give the community some hope, while bringing furloughed performers back onstage for the first time since March.

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“It was a huge undertaking [to move outside] to begin with, dealing with the elements and everything,” Festival Ballet Providence Executive Director Kathleen Breen Combes told Providence Business News on Wednesday. “We figured we’d just try. If we could do it, we would, and I would put my company back to work. Artists without intention are not happy people. So, it was something to work toward and we all knew that. We’re creating art and giving them purpose.”

However, the pandemic’s second surge forced the state to go into a temporary three-week “pause,” which in turn forced Festival Ballet – at the direction of both R.I. Department of Business Regulation and R.I. Commerce Corp. – to cancel the ballet’s Dec. 17-27 in-person Nutcracker Sweets! performances.

The pandemic had already greatly hampered Rhode Island’s arts scene, including Festival Ballet. With that latest blow, it left the ballet performers at the time wondering what hope, if any, was left not only for themselves but also for the community.

“It was like, we had to do something,” Combes said.

Starting Thursday, Festival Ballet’s Nutcracker Sweets! performance will go on, but a bit different than planned. The show will be presented as a film production free of charge for the community. Registration to view the performances is currently being done through the ballet company’s website.

The 2020-21 version of Nutcracker Sweets! will be a condensed, one-act version of the full performance, and be available on demand through Jan. 10. Nutcracker Sweets! normally draws approximately 8,000 attendees, Combes said, but would have been restricted to no more than 1,500 if the show was held outside.

Combes said Festival Ballet received $100,000 from R.I. Commerce’s Hotel, Arts & Tourism grant program to cover the company’s full expenses and artist fees during the six-week rehearsal and film production that allows Festival Ballet to present the performance for free.

Another change to Nutcracker Sweets! for this year is that children, who are normally a key aspect to the performance, could not take the virtual stage. Initially, approximately 40 children were going to be part of the live outdoor production with “reimagined” choreography, Combes said. But when the state went into the pause, Combes said Festival Ballet had to close its performing school, which meant the children couldn’t be part of the production.

“Our artistic curator Yury Yanowsky had to reimagine the first 15 minutes of the filming … because there’s no more party kids; there was nothing,” Combes said. “So, we quickly reimagined the entire beginning without children. I hope the kids can be involved again [next year].”

Combes also said performers were regularly tested for COVID-19 during the rehearsing and production period.

Festival Ballet has remained somewhat operational during the pandemic. Its performing school is operating at about 60% capacity to allow space, Combes said, and in the fall the company did a drive-in theater production in New Bedford. On Jan. 9, Festival Ballet will perform with the Rhode Island Philharmonic Orchestra at The Vets as part of its livestream production.

Combes hopes that in the spring, Festival Ballet can utilize a portable performance floor it purchased with the Take It Outside grant to have repertoire shows and students do culmination performances through the summer.

Providence Business News is spotlighting nonprofits, companies and workers stepping up to challenges presented by the spread of the new coronavirus.

James Bessette is the PBN special projects editor, and also covers the nonprofit and education sectors. You may reach him at Bessette@PBN.com. You may also follow him on Twitter at @James_Bessette.

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