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Choreographing Christmas During Coronavirus

A circle of Richmond Ballet members during the 2019 version of The Nutcracker
Company dancers and trainees spend three weeks in November rehearsing for The Nutcracker ​​​. The final product includes masterful and delicate motions as seen here during the Act 2 of the 2019 performance. (Photo: Sarah Ferguson/Richmond Ballet)

The Nutcracker was the first show Stoner Winslett choreographed as Richmond Ballet’s artistic director. For the next 39 Decembers, she heard cheerful laughter and inspiring music throughout the studio. Her 41st December would prove challenging with COVID-19 halting any normalcy in the art world. 

“When we were talking with dancers, and we were all trying to decide whether we should go for trying to be together in the studio and do performances in this unknown environment, we kept coming back to that mission of awakening and uplifting the human spirit for both dancers and audience,” Winslett said. “We just felt in the COVID time and the time of social unrest that we're all in - the isolation time - that it was not the time for us to just go hide, that we needed to come forward and step forward, and that the community needed us.”

After a summer hiatus and new safety protocols, the company reopened its doors to studio audiences in September. With the company-owned 250-seat theatre, guests could attend shows with proper social distancing. Dancers and audience members wore masks for performances, and the dancers have formed pods to prevent disease spread within the company. Fortunately, no audience, crew or company members contracted coronavirus because of attending a show this fall. 

Ira White, Richmond Ballet company member and RVA Dance Awards 2020 Dancer of the Year, prepared for his return to the stage with video-conference dance classes. As Olympic-level athletes with short careers, dancer’s abilities and disposition could be devastated by sitting on the sidelines for even one year. 

“I wanted to come back,” White said. “I wanted to be able to come back to this craft that I've worked so hard on for a majority of my life and to make beautiful art and make a beautiful experience for the Richmond public.”

White discovered his love for dance through Richmond Ballet’s Minds in Motion program at 10 years old and later matriculated into the school. After rising through the ranks, he reached his sixth year with the main company this year, performing a broad range of parts. 

“We felt really good that we were able to do 48 shows,” explained Winslett. “We did not feel good about going into the Dominion Energy Center, with a cast of not only our professional company, but our second company, our trainees … all those children, then there's the whole IATSE backstage crew, there's the orchestra members, then you talk about the audience.”

Essentially, The Nutcracker production requires too much manpower, causing its cancellation for the 2020 season. Instead, the ballet is selling virtual copies of last year’s performance for limited viewing. All of this year’s company members are featured in the show. White, who previously performed as the coveted Snake Charmer among other roles, can be seen as Snow King in the pre-recorded performance. 

“It has to be probably the weirdest holiday season for me to not hear the music,” White speculated. “Especially in this building, because this is my real first memory of the ballet for me is The Nutcracker. That was my first exposure to it.”

Though dancers rehearse some Nutcracker scenes for private showings, the building does not sound the same as years past. Typically, nearly 200 students begin learning their parts in October, and by November, trainees and company members join the preparations, all for opening night in Hampton Roads on the first Friday of December.

“At any given time on the weekend, you could walk through the third and the second floor and hear six different scenes of The Nutcracker,” Winslett recalled. “You walk, and you hear Waltz of the Flowers, and then you hear stuff like the party scene, Mother Ginger. The whole building is just completely full.”

Ira White and Melissa Frain in the 2019 edition of The Nutcracker by Stoner Winslett
Ira White performing with Melissa Frain in the 2019 performance of The Nutcracker by Stoner Winslett. (Photo: Sarah Ferguson/Richmond Ballet) 

While The Nutcracker will not be in-person, Winslett and the company still want to connect with the community. White and other dancers are hard at work sending virtual “thank you” videos, cutting ornament crafts and creating gift boxes for families who purchase special packages of the show. 

“We're in this as a group to make the best product for the Richmond community,” White explained. “This is who we do it for. We don't necessarily do it for ourselves. We do it for our audience members.”

Virtual tickets are available through Richmond Ballet’s website and include packages ranging from $25 to $1000. The reason for the drastic difference in prices reflects the importance of accessibility to the ballet while ensuring its survival. With unlimited access to the performance until December 31, viewers can choose to purchase behind-the-curtain footage, craft packages and socially-distanced visits from in-costume dancers. The show recording is last year’s opening night in Richmond, commemorating Winslett’s 40th year as artistic director. 

The Nutcracker is absolutely a three-generation experience,” Winslett said. “I'll be going into the theater, and you see the grandparents, parents, grandchildren coming together, and all three generations enjoy different parts of it.”

Winslett encourages patrons to safely share the experience with family, neighbors and friends. This year may be the only opportunity to watch Richmond Ballet’s The Nutcracker at home. Next December, Winslett and the company hope to see families of all sizes, ages and backgrounds in the theatre. 

“When you come into a show, it should be like an oasis in the desert, where you have that moment that everything else has gone, and you just have what you physically, emotionally and spiritually need for however long the show is, and then maybe you're more fortified to go back on your journey,” said Winslett.