When cities across Florida initially went into lockdown due to COVID-19, many artists assumed that they would need to cancel a performance, maybe two. Seven months later, some performing arts organizations have missed much of their season and are unsure about when they will be able to head back into the theater to do what they live for - perform in front of a theater audience.
You may think that COVID-19 closures have left the local arts community feeling hopeless, but conversations with some of Florida’s directors and dancers prove otherwise. In response to regulations and concerns surrounding the pandemic, Florida artists are creatively pivoting their repertoire to maintain their ability to delight their audiences. These artists are also being reminded of how crucial the arts are to helping people stay positive and connected during difficult times.
“People are really craving an emotional distraction right now. Ballet offers beauty amidst the chaos, it gives people hope,” says Jennifer Kronenberg, Co-Artistic Director of Dimensions Dance Theater of Miami.
"The Nutcracker" is a holiday institution. It is one of the largest productions in a year for many companies; a show that is beloved amongst longtime ballet patrons and first-time audiences alike. This year, for the second consecutive year, Dimensions Dance Theater of Miami joined Ballet Vero Beach for their rendition of the festive ballet, “Nutcracker on the Indian River.”
“Nutcracker on the Indian River” is a unique telling of the original ballet. The storyline and score follow the show you may have seen as a child, but its magical backdrop has been re-envisioned in the brownstones of New York City and Clara’s holiday travels to Vero Beach in 1919. The second act, usually a trip through a multicultural candy land, features the lush flora and fauna of Florida’s Indian River Lagoon and includes performances by land crabs, cranes, manatees, river otters, and bougainvillea. “Nutcracker on the Indian River” was created in partnership with The Indian River Land Trust, an organization that preserves, conserves, and improves the area’s natural resources.
Adam Schnell, Artistic Director and CEO of Ballet Vero Beach, knew that performing their beloved “Nutcracker on the Indian River” in the theater this year would be nearly impossible. With the sizable cast and crew required to perform “The Nutcracker," COVID-19 regulations surrounding performance venues, and student cast members, the risk would just be too high. Ballet Vero Beach has always incorporated film into their performances to help bridge the gap between an old-world art and a new world audience and for this year’s “Nutcracker on the Indian River” it came to the forefront.
When considering their options for the 2020 performance, Schnell decided to move the action outdoors. The concept for making a portion of the production a magical on-screen journey was born. Interior scenes were filmed at the Hallstrom House, built in 1918 to resemble a New England mansion. Exterior scenes were filmed exclusively on Indian River Land Trust properties, including a stage built on the banks of The Indian River, where the second act of the production is purportedly set. Filming “Nutcracker on the Indian River” and placing it at these unique and historical settings has added an entirely new, whimsical dimension to their seasonal gem.
Even though the dancers have been back in the studio rehearsing for “Nutcracker” and their respective upcoming digital seasons, things are not business as usual. The dancers are rehearsing in smaller groups, with masks, and are getting tested for COVID-19 regularly. For the filming of “Nutcracker on the Indian River,” the student performers were separated from the professional dancers and they filmed outside, a unique benefit of being in Florida this time of year.
Pivoting is nothing new to Kronenburg or Schnell. In order to run a thriving ballet company, it is essential to create works that speak to your audience and the local community. Dimensions Dance Theater of Miami prides itself on being representative of the unique energy of Miami. They hire local artists, partner with local musicians, and perform works that embody the vibrant culture of Miami. Schnell has been incorporating film into Ballet Vero Beach’s performances since the company’s inception and talks about using this time as inspiration to find the “crackle between the performers and the audience” in the digital space.
The 2020 film, “Nutcracker on The Indian River,” is a traditional ballet performance in an unusual setting, with a multimedia digital component, extra safety precautions, and an audience and donor base that extends beyond the local community. These circumstances exemplify how arts organizations all over the world are pivoting to meet the unpredictable, ever-shifting demands brought about by COVID-19.
“We’ve been pushed to be more creative than we’ve ever been,” says Dimensions Dance Theater of Miami Company Member Chloe Freytag. “It has been an opportunity for growth; how can we take the circumstances we are given and still deliver a high-quality, artistic production that supports joy in our community?”
While most artists are itching to get back into the theater, many see a silver lining in that COVID-19 closures have brought the opportunity to get in front of a larger, more national audience. “We want to bring art to as many people as possible, that’s what keeps me going,” says Schnell.
“The Nutcracker on The Indian River” will be available to the public for free from December 23 - January 6 on https://balletverobeach.org/.
Photos by Joe Semkow.