PRESS: You can’t cancel Christmas. How these Louisville theaters are keeping holiday magic alive

by Dahlia Ghabour, The Courier-Journal

Louisville, KY— The letter canceling “The Nutcracker” arrived in the heat of late July.

It wasn’t exactly a surprise, but Kelli Archer still dreaded having to tell her 14-year-old daughter, Kate, she would not be performing in “The Brown-Forman Nutcracker” with the Louisville Ballet. The unyielding coronavirus pandemic and continued growth in COVID-19 cases meant there simply wouldn’t be a performance this year.

Aspiring dancer Kate didn’t cry when her mom broke the news, but she felt empty.

She went into her room and pulled up YouTube videos of her favorite sequences in the famous ballet: the Mirlitons dance, the snow scene, the sugar plum variation. She was chasing the happiness she felt performing in the Louisville Ballet’s children’s cast of “The Nutcracker” for the last six years.

The loss sunk in further when she considered that 2020 would have been her last year in the show. “The Nutcracker” children’s cast has a maximum height restriction of 5-feet, 4-inches, and Kate would have barely made it at audition time in August.

The height restriction is for a simple reason: so the children’s cast looks like children when standing next to the adult ballet dancers. Next year, she will be too tall.Her time in the children’s cast of “The Nutcracker,” like so many canceled things in 2020, ended without ceremony.

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And Kate is not alone. Down the street at Actors Theater of Louisville, coronavirus-related limitations on gatherings also mean audiences won’t be crowding into the Pamela Brown Auditorium for the 45th annual production of “Fifth-Third Bank’s A Christmas Carol,” which features about 20 actors, from Tiny Tim to Ebenezer Scrooge.

But in the year of “cancel everything,” can you really cancel Christmas? For Louisville’s arts community, the answer is no — even a pandemic can’t completely cancel traditions and stories woven into the fabric of this city.

Both the Louisville Ballet and Actor’s Theatre made adapting “The Nutcracker” and “A Christmas Carol” for virtual audiences their first priority when it became clear people could not safely gather in theatre seats this year.

For the ballet, this meant renegotiating a contract to air the 2019 production of “Nutcracker,” filmed live by WDRB Louisville. For Actor’s Theatre, it meant transitioning the classic Dickens novella from a stage production into a radio drama.

While it’s wildly different and a little sad for the actors, dancers, crew and production teams, their efforts mean audiences in Louisville can still enjoy the classic tales, which both arts organizations note break the mold on expectations every year, albeit in a unique way.

“It’s funny how this [Nutcracker] story has just kind of expanded beyond ballet,” Ballet mistress and children’s cast manager Helen Daigle said. “It brings in audiences that aren’t there for the classical ballet of it. They’re there for Christmas.”

Embracing a digital stage
Daigle said she didn’t really give up on “The Nutcracker” until the August audition date came and went.

Normally, she starts planning the rehearsal schedule for the behemoth production in February or March. Rehearsals run every Friday and Saturday from September all the way until opening day in early December.

But this year is eerily quiet. Now 43, Daigle has danced in or coached a “Nutcracker” production nearly every year since she was 8 years old. She’s served as the Louisville Ballet’s children’s cast manager since 2009.

“I get to watch them not only grow in height but in their ability and artistry,” Daigle said. “They start as an angel and graduate up through the roles until they’re a soldier, the tallest of the kids’ roles. Watching that progression is one of the joys and one thing that keeps ‘Nutcracker’ alive for me after 30 years of it.”

That’s what she will miss the most, she said: watching kids rise to the occasion, “because they always do.” It hurts to think about the older dancers, like Kate, who will outgrow the production, not knowing that 2019 would end up being their last year in the children’s cast.

Kate is just one of more than 100 children who are feeling the loss of a canceled Christmas tradition in Louisville. About 105 children ages 7 to 14 join the Louisville Ballet’s “The Nutcracker” cast every year, along with 24 company dancers and 50 parent volunteers. The Louisville Ballet has danced “The Nutcracker” every December since 1954, with the current iteration running since 2009.

“I’ve been in it for so long that not having it feels weird,” Kate said. “I feel so out of whack. I’m still in the rehearsal space for [ballet] classes sometimes, and it makes me sad when I think about it. But I still feel ‘The Nutcracker’ spirit within me.”

“The Nutcracker” parents didn’t know it would be their last time, either.

“I wasn’t ready last year to say goodbye, so I had prepared myself this year I would say goodbye [to the Nutcracker],” Kelli Archer, a longtime backstage parent volunteer, said. “I haven’t had that closure. But it’s something I enjoyed tremendously during the six years. I feel very fulfilled and lucky I could do that, and share in her experience. It’s something I will always cherish.”