Can you dance a classical ballet and still abide by all the COVID-19 protocols?
The Reaching Heart School of Ballet in West Harwich was determined to give it a try for their headline production of a perennial Christmas favorite, “The Nutcracker.” The result is a fully costumed 90-minute virtual production complete with movie-like effects premiering online Christmas night.
Like many ballet schools and companies across the country, Reaching Heart has relied significantly on ticket sales from its Nutcracker performances to support its yearlong programs. COVID-19 has exacted a tremendous price, said Melissa Heart, the school's director.
"We normally perform four shows a year and we lost them all," she said in an interview recently. "It's been devastating to the school and to the students."
The school performed the Nutcracker for the past 17 years and Heart was determined to make it happen safely this year as well. Partnering with Chatham's Victoria Bessette, a recent graduate of Roger Williams University and an accomplished dancer herself, Heart had a daunting task. "We had to re-choreograph the show to ensure at every step the dancers, who were all masked, were six feet apart." Bessette is also very savvy with technology, Heart said, so that they were able to remake the show in a movie format.
Fortunately, the backdrops for the production, in recent years presented at Monomoy High School, could be hung in Reaching Heart's West Harwich studio. The main stage was transformed into The Land of the Sweets and the Magical Snow Forest. A downstairs studio was transformed into the Silberhaus living room, where Clara received the magical Nutcracker.
The ballet includes 55 dancers who range in age from 4 years old to seniors in high school. There are three complete casts performing, Heart said, which gave the students a chance to play multiple roles. Professional dancer Gustavo Candelas, who plays the part of the Nutcracker Cavalier, has danced professionally with the Miami City Ballet, Ballet San Antonio and the Milwaukee Ballet. Local students danced all the main roles including the Sugar Plum Fairy. Heart was thrilled with the result, which she called "a memorable rendition of a Holiday classic."
There were serious challenges to getting this production done, Heart said. "Keeping up the energy level while wearing a mask was difficult," Heart said. "It's physically hard to have a mask on but we were very strict and fortunately the dancers could do it."
Familiar parts of the ballet were also challenging to choreograph, Heart said. She especially recalled the snowflake dance. "In the past we have had 17 dancers and now we could only have nine. We just had to make it work."
Heart hopes that many of the same audience members who have attended year after year will enjoy the virtual production as well. Her goal is to "add a bit of hope and normalcy for the dancers in a world that feels upside down."
The production will be available for $25 on YouTube starting on Christmas and for six consecutive nights thereafter, beginning at 7 p.m. Proceeds "will help keep our dancers performing during the pandemic," Heart said. For login information, go to ReachingHeart.com, where there is also information on becoming a sponsor of the company. Payment information is available by phone at 508-430-4303. Also available for purchase are regular DVD or Blu-ray disc of the production.
Now that they have their slippers wet, so to speak, the students and staff are already beginning preparation for a second virtual ballet production, “Sleeping Beauty” in May 2021.
"My goal is to continue offering more virtual performances until a time when we can safely perform again for an audience," Heart said.