Why Festival Ballet Providence Is Launching a New Nutcracker in the Wake of the Pandemic

December 14, 2021

After a year without sugar plums, snowflakes and polichinelles, ballet companies nationwide are desperate to bring the holiday cheer—and profitability—of The Nutcracker back to their stages. For some, COVID-19 health concerns are forcing companies to rethink their productions. In September, New York City Ballet announced it wouldn’t allow children under 12 years old, who were too young to be vaccinated against the virus, to perform. While that means NYCB may have to tweak costumes and casting more than in a typical year, the company, like most others in the U.S., is going forward with its existing production. Festival Ballet Providence, on the other hand, is debuting a new Nutcracker December 17–26—an unexpected move when Nutcracker is many companies’ most financially reliable warhorse.

When former Boston Ballet star Kathleen Breen Combes stepped into the role of executive director at FBP in 2019, she was introduced to a 20-year-old Nutcracker production being performed at a theater that was larger than the company’s needs. She recognized immediately that moving to a smaller house would allow the troupe to offer more performances per season, but the organization’s previous plans for a capital campaign to fund a new production in a new venue had never come to fruition. Then, a year ago, Breen Combes, now FBP’s director, was told the company was losing its 2021 slot to a visiting Hamilton tour. Though she recognized the opportunity to move to the Veterans Memorial Auditorium, or “The Vets,” a smaller theater in the city, the company’s Nutcracker sets wouldn’t fit into the space.

In the spirit of communal support that’s kept so many arts organizations going during this difficult period, Breen Combes reached out to her network to find preexisting sets and costumes for FBP to purchase. She ended up connecting with Atlanta Ballet, adopting pieces from a version they’d retired.

FBP artistic curator (and Breen Combes’ husband) Yury Yanowsky was asked to choreograph a new production. “There were parts that needed to be updated, so we felt we might as well freshen the whole thing,” says Breen Combes. One notable change will be a revamped “Tea Variation” done in consultation with the FBP School’s traditional Chinese dance teacher, Chu Ling. The new production will also sport FBP’s first ever Mother Ginger, and tap into the local arts scene with cameos by a new character designed by the artists at Big Nazo Lab.

FBP is planning to launch its Nutcracker with performers of all ages (a decision regularly reevaluated), relying on a full vaccination policy for dancers 12 and over and regular COVID-19 testing to keep the cast safe. “I do feel like I’m taking a risk, but this is the year to do it,” says Breen Combes. “I hope everyone who didn’t go to the Nutcracker last year is going to come this year, and just be so excited to see it.”