The Nutcracker: Sparkle of holiday cheer undimmed by pandemic

The Nutcracker: Sparkle of holiday cheer undimmed by pandemic

A Nutcracker from pervious years.
A Nutcracker from pervious years.
L ike the Grinch who stole Christmas—COVID-19 produced particularly dreary headlines in early 2020. The Washington Post declared “The Nutcracker” nationwide had become the “latest casualty” of the coronavirus. By October, it reported numerous cancellations of the ballet were hitting “dance companies hard.” 

In places like Washington, D.C. and Houston, Texas, virtual performances were announced. But in many others like New York City, Atlanta and Macon, the much-beloved holiday classic was scrapped altogether. 

Dance instructors at Georgia College—like their partners in music and theatre—determined ‘the show must go on.’ They were given the greenlight by administration after months of planning, numerous rewriting of reports and the setting of strict guidelines.

“Students are so thankful that we’re doing ‘The Nutcracker’ this year, and I’ve told them over and over again—I said ‘y’all just don’t know how fortunate we are to be doing this,’” said Amelia Pelton, director of dance and head of the university’s popular GC Community Dance Program.

Senior Abbey Reber of Eatonton is a public health major with a minor in dance. She’s been in the dance program since age three and has performed in “The Nutcracker” every year since, playing everything from a mouse and reindeer to Clara. This year, Reber plays the Sugar Plum Fairy, whose solo dance is the most difficult. She also plays Big Mouse, Dream Fairy, Snowflake and Arabian Princess.

Senior Abbey Reber is Sugar Plum Fairy.
Senior Abbey Reber is Sugar Plum Fairy.
Perhaps more than ever, she said, it’s important for “The Nutcracker” to continue. 

“Because I’ve been dancing in ‘The Nutcracker’ my whole life, I can’t imagine a Christmas season without it,” Reber said. “I think what I love the most about ‘The Nutcracker’ is the sheer innocence of it. Life can be overwhelming, scary and dark—especially in the season we’re living in right now.”

“‘The Nutcracker’ is a happy ballet full of magic, presents and sweets. During the performance,” she said, “audience members and dancers alike forget about the seriousness of the world for a minute and fully immerse themselves in a beautiful story. That’s what I love most about it.”

COVID-19 has complicated dance, Reber admitted. Masks and strenuous movement make it difficult for her to catch her breath, and she loses energy more quickly. But Reber feels “incredibly blessed” to be in “The Nutcracker” this year, when so many performances were canceled. 

Being able to do ‘The Nutcracker’ makes today’s world feel a little more normal. If anything, I feel like now’s the time we need these performances and need the arts to provide us with an escape from how overwhelming the world can be.
– Senior Abbey Reber

GC Community Dance student Libby Mathis of Milledgeville rehearses her role as Candy Cane Princess.
GC Community Dance student Libby Mathis of Milledgeville rehearses her role as Candy Cane Princess.
The pandemic forced Georgia College’s dance program online in March. But dancing alone in front of a computer screen isn’t much fun, Pelton said. Families and students were happy when in-person classes resumed in September. They were even more relieved to hear “The Nutcracker” was still on schedule. To allow this: All ballet barres, doorknobs and frequently-touched areas are sanitized between every class. Class sizes are limited. Everyone wears a mask and stands six feet apart.

Georgia College’s “Nutcracker” will be performed with these restrictions as well. It’ll still be on stage at Russell Hall Auditorium but without an audience. The 1892 Russian ballet will be prerecorded in sections and then available for purchase on DVD by Dec. 10. Small groups, one at a time, will be filmed in segments that are edited together for a fluid performance. 

Normally, four performances in two weekends sellout at Russell—985 seats each time. Although there won’t be a live audience on campus this year, the Nutcracker cast of 85 children and students will perform in front of a live, drive-by audience at Lockerly Arboretum's inaugural Christmas lights display in Milledgeville. Georgia College’s Nutcracker will be staged outside with all the props, lights, ballet and holiday magic audiences have come to expect. 

3-year-old Eliza Zoeteway of Milledgeville plays a trumpeteer.
3-year-old Eliza Zoeteway of Milledgeville plays a trumpeteer.
In Lockerly’s dazzling nighttime wonderland—"The Nutcracker” will first be seen in the distance. As cars slowly round bends and hills, people will hear Christmas music and see dancers in tutus through a myriad of Christmas lights and trees—adding to the ballet’s already dreamlike mystic. 

Lockerly's light show is five weekend nights from 6 to 9 p.m. and costs $10 per car. Georgia College’s dance troupe will appear on two nights. Act one—the party scene with mice, soldiers, tap dancers and snowflakes—will be 6 to 7 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 5. Act two—the land of sweets and dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy—will be 6 to 7 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 12. 

Most everything will be incorporated into “The Nutcracker” DVD and many sets will also be at Lockerly. The enormous Nutcracker props that normally line either side of Russell stage will be there, along with a huge blow-up Nutcracker. The throne, Clara’s sleigh and the Christmas tree that “grows up to the ceiling” are in the DVD, Pelton said. 

On DVD, the university’s two snow machines will also be used to make snow; fog machines will make fog; pyrotechnics will produce booming fireworks; and the giant Chinese dragon will float across stage, breathing smoke. Reindeer will do their Rockette dance in velvet brown tuxedos and antlers. And Georgia College’s Nutcracker performance will still include the “crazy fun” Bollywood dance. 

Junior David Connel plays Clara's Prince.
Junior David Connel plays Clara's Prince.
“It’s all very magical. We have lots of special effects. It’s a labor of love, and it’s my favorite time of year,” said Pelton, who after 26 years at Georgia College says she never wants to retire. She enjoys teaching dance with her assistant director and senior dance lecturer Natalie King, who’s instrumental in getting “The Nutcracker” onstage each year.

“This year’s been a huge challenge,” Pelton, “but we’re so grateful for the opportunity to present ‘The Nutcracker’ in some form.”

Junior David Connel of Grayson, Georgia, is also thankful for the chance to continue dancing. The theatre major and dance minor plays Clara’s Nutcracker Prince. Even though the performance won’t be live at Russell Auditorium, he said, this year’s Nutcracker is historic and will be remembered. 

He’s especially looking forward to the live, outside performance at Lockerly.

The quality of our performance has not been deterred, and I want to share the hard work we’ve put into this show with as many people as possible. I’m glad we’ll be able to share what we’re doing and, hopefully, we’ll bring people joy through our performances.
– Junior David Connel