Covid-19 restrictions are loosening and new federal aid money is on the way, yet major productions of the Nutcracker ballet, a classic hallmark of the holiday season, could yet be put on hold for a second year in a row.
Dance companies from Boston to Los Angeles remain unsure if live performances will take place this holiday season. An incredible amount of uncertainty remains for an industry that normally plans months ahead, if not more than a year in advance. Opening a show in November will depend on local regulations, whether audiences want to come back inside theaters and if cash-strapped venues can afford to staff up to launch a full production in time.
Eyes will be on Broadway, set to open in the fall at full capacity, to set a precedent and signal whether live shows will be able to return successfully after theaters were shuttered for more than a year.
“I think it’s very possible that we could be performing Nutcracker to a low-capacity crowd and remain hopeful that we’ll be at 100%,” said Max Hodges, executive director of Boston Ballet.
The company, which has about 60 dancers, normally performs at the Citizens Bank Opera House. Last year, it adapted to the pandemic requirements by launching an on-demand streaming subscription service and broadcast the Nutcracker on television for the first time. The company usually announces the schedule for its upcoming season in March, but is currently still in wait-and-see mode.
“We are trying to make plans that are resilient for multiple scenarios,” Hodges added.
Aid targeted at theaters and restaurants
The federal government has provided billions of dollars in relief aid to businesses throughout the pandemic. The broadest initiative, the Paycheck Protection Program, awarded two rounds of forgivable loans to qualifying small businesses before closing applications Tuesday. But more targeted programs like the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program that many dance companies qualify for and the newly opened Restaurant Revitalization Fund – which President Joe Biden promoted in a visit to a Washington, DC, taco shop on Wednesday -- are now available and getting money out the door.
“We’re showing the American people that their government can deliver for them and do it without waste,” Biden said in remarks about the American Rescue Plan later on Wednesday.
He was responsible for proposing much of what was in that package, passed by Congress in March, including the restaurant fund.
Thousands of applications in the first week
The program for shuttered theaters was passed by Congress late last year, before Biden took office, but has been implemented by his administration. It was initially plagued with technical difficulties but finally opened to applications on April 26, and the agency received 10,300 over the first week. It is currently reviewing the applications and said the first round of those grants – for the hardest hit businesses – will go out at the end of May.
Businesses that lost at least 90% of their revenue will be prioritized. The new grant can total up to $10 million or up to 45% of their 2019 revenue per eligible business, whichever is less, and can be used for expenses such as payroll, rent, utilities and personal protective equipment.
“The grant would be tremendously helpful, if we get it,” said Thordal Christensen, co-artistic director of Los Angeles Ballet, adding that it could be used to pay dancers, staff and deposits at different venues.
The company normally performs the Nutcracker at several different theaters in Los Angeles County, which aren’t allowed to open yet. Christensen said he hopes the dancers, who haven’t been back since February of last year, can start rehearsing for the Nutcracker in September.
In March, Congress changed the rules of the Paycheck Protection Program so that the arts industry could apply for a second round loans while they waited for the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant program to open. The loan helped the Los Angeles Ballet continue paying its roughly 30 dancers.
The shows continued, without ticket sales
Many groups found ways to continue performing throughout the pandemic even it brought in little revenue.
“The art never stopped,” said Celia Fushille, artistic director at Smuin Contemporary Ballet based in San Francisco, which normally has about 16 dancers.
More on Covid-19 relief
The company invested in a portable dance floor so that it could perform outdoor shows, asking patrons – kept six feet apart and masked – for donations. The dancers rehearsed at home and then in pods throughout the lat year. Pieces were reworked, featuring mores solos and duets. Altogether, Smuin held 45 virtual and 44 live performances between October 2020 and May 2021 – compared to a typical season of 65.
Fushille believes they’ll be back in the theater for live shows in November for the company’s Christmas show, but not beforehand. She’s budgeting based on the expectation that they’ll be allowed to sell tickets for half the normal capacity.
Hope persists despite uncertainty
Touring companies like the Mark Morris Dance Group that normally travel around the globe must juggle not only the changing Covid-19 restrictions on venues from city to city but also travel rules that could pose testing, vaccine or quarantine requirements.
Yet the Brooklyn-based group’s executive director, Nancy Umanoff, is expecting a robust touring season. While it’s unlikely to include any international stops, the company is in discussions with several US cities. The season is set to launch with an in-person holiday show at Cal Performances in Berkeley in December.
Still, the company is operating with a little more than half of its pre-pandemic staffing levels after having to make layoffs, furloughs and salary reductions.
“It’s extraordinary that we’re even talking about touring and vaccines and this high level of government support. It shows clear signs of recovery,” Umanoff said.