A Nutcracker in June

Last winter, Ballet Academy of Pittsburgh made the bold decision to postpone its annual Nutcracker. The result: an out-of-season (but no less festive) production with fewer COVID restrictions and some unexpected benefits.

Teen dancers perform a pas de deux in front of a colorful backdrop covered in sweets, and a younger couple of dancers who watch from a candy throne. The young woman, in a pink tutu, is supported in a penche by her male partner, who wears all white.
Katie Ging Photography, Courtesy Ballet Academy of Pittsburgh

A growing Christmas tree. Angels and mice. Flowers and a sugarplum. Snow. Last week, the curtain rose on a festive performance of The Nutcracker…in June?

The pandemic has brought all sorts of odd workarounds for dance studios, from virtual classes to outdoor performances. But when COVID-19 threatened Ballet Academy of Pittsburgh’s annual Nutcracker, the school decided to make an especially bold pivot: to hold it in early June, when most schools are doing their end-of-year summer recitals.

Back in October, when preparations would have had to have begun for a traditional Nutcracker, COVID-19 cases were starting to rise, and it was clear that staging The Nutcracker at the usual time would be devoid of the holiday cheer that makes it special. Plus, no one was vaccinated, so chances of the show being derailed by COVID-19 were high, and there would be no live audience.

“We knew some schools livestreamed or staged it later in the winter,” says Lindsay Piper, who founded the school in 2006 with her husband, Steven Piper. “We had faith that the vaccines would make a big difference by June and that we’d be able to stage it close to normal.”

A large group of girls, some in red dresses and some in green dresses, and all wearing masks, gather to pose for a photo backstage.
Courtesy Ballet Academy of Pittsburgh

By March, that assessment looked plausible, and they moved ahead with plans. Given how disrupted this year has been, Piper says it felt remarkably typical to be working on The Nutcracker once they got going—and got past the lack of snow dotting the outside of the studio. As counterintuitive as it may seem, doing The Nutcracker in June has given students a sense of much-needed normalcy and continuity. “One of my Sugar Plums, she’s been with me since she was 4 years old,” says Piper. “This was her year to be Sugar Plum and we wanted her to have that moment, and for her family to be able to be there to see it.”

Though waiting until June meant the school’s Nutcracker more closely resembled “normal,” there were still some differences. For one, it wasn’t the top source of revenue it usually is. The audience was limited to 50 percent capacity, which is about 375 people—all students’ family members and all wearing masks. To make up for some of this loss, Piper raised in-person ticket prices from $15 to $20, and livestreamed the production for $35 per IP address. She’s been able to cover costs (renting the theater, paying a few professional guest performers) and make a modest profit.

A young dancer plays Clara, in a long white nightgown-like dress, and partners with the Nutcracker, who wears a big Nutcracker head. Clara is in arabesque, holding onto her Nutcracker's arm for support.
Katie Ging Photography, Courtesy Ballet Academy of Pittsburgh

Student participation also dropped by around 30 percent, which Piper believes was due to competing end-of-school-year priorities, like graduations. One unexpected upside: space in the party scene cast to accommodate alumni of the school, who were able to be home in Pittsburgh at this time of year, including Piper’s own daughters, who are usually performing The Nutcracker with Nashville Ballet and Pacific Northwest Ballet.

The June date hasn’t kept Piper from leaning in to some holiday joy. She still decorated the lobby with a Christmas tree, a large Nutcracker and other holiday ornamentation. “Why not embrace it?,” she asks.

But perhaps the biggest perk of waiting until June has been the reduction of COVID-19 cases, and the peace of mind that comes with it. “People just aren’t as afraid now. We can enjoy the experience so much more than if we had tried to do something in December,” says Piper.

Four young girls are dressed in angel costumes backstage. They have headpieces with stars on them, and hold fake candles. They are all wearing masks.
Courtesy Ballet Academy of Pittsburgh

After months of not knowing if or when Nutcracker would happen this year, and feeling the stark absence of the annual December performances, Piper says she and the students have never been so happy to hear the ubiquitous Tchaikovsky score.

“The looks on the kids’ faces when they come to rehearsal and talk about going to the theater and getting into costume, it’s just made this 100 percent worth it and overtaken the slight absurdity of the timing,” she says. “What will feel strange is in December when we’re back on the usual schedule. It’ll be like, ‘Didn’t we just do this?’”

Avichai Scher is a freelance journalist who has written for The New York Times and NBC News.