Can we really have Christmas without The Nutcracker? Generations of Houstonians have delighted in this annual holiday performance by the Houston Ballet, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s one of the many traditions that are falling by the wayside.
“It’s heartbreaking,” says Stanton Welch, Houston Ballet’s artistic director. “We were just getting back from Harvey, and now this.” The 2017 hurricane flooded the Wortham Theater Center, the company’s home venue, but, as Welch points out, “at least then they could take the season on tour and perform in other venues.” The pandemic is now forcing the ballet to cancel all live performances.
The holiday classic, which was set to run November 29 through December 29, is the company’s cash cow, and was expected to bring in $5 million in ticket sales. But the beloved production has always meant so much more than ticket sales to the dancers.
“Casting is never guaranteed, but I have [danced] the role of the prince for the last three years,” says Houston Ballet soloist Harper Watters. “I look forward to the role each year because it’s such a challenge. Nutcracker is the only ballet we revisit annually, so it’s a fantastic way to check in and see where you are as a dancer and artist.
“In quarantine, I’ve faced the challenge of creating from the start. Usually I [would] have a choreographer to give me a move, and then I make it my own. Having to develop my creative voice from nothing has been a challenge,” Watters admits. Then the Black Lives Matter movement began, and I was compelled to use my voice. Both the quarantine and [the racial-justice demonstrations] have required me to do a lot of self-reflecting and learning, and I was looking forward to sharing what I’ve learned through my dancing onstage as the Prince. You rarely see a Black queer prince. I was so looking forward to owning that space onstage this year. That’s why we need the arts—to share what we’ve learned, to continue the necessary conversations, and to be visible for the next generation of creative voices.”
For now, the 40th-anniversary Nutcracker Market—the Ballet’s holiday shopping and fundraising event of the season—is still set for November 12 through 15 at the NRG Center. Since it began in 1981, the event has raised more than $70 million for the Houston Ballet Foundation.
“As Houston Ballet’s largest single-event fundraiser, Nutcracker Market is extremely hopeful that it will be able to host its annual holiday shopping extravaganza this November, with safety measures in place as recommended by the CDC and State officials,” says Market CEO Patsy Chapman. “However, the health and safety of everyone involved remains a top priority. It is through challenging times like this that we recognize that this is why we have the Nutcracker Market. Proceeds from the event allow the Ballet to not only maintain and enhance its status as a world-class company, but, this year especially, it will also help maintain its staff and dancers. So now we need your support more than ever. For updated event information, please follow Nutcracker Market on social media and visit NutcrackerMarket.com.”
The spring Market event was held online, and that might have to be repeated in November. So much of what Houston Ballet is doing now is virtual. Instead of live performances, the arts organization has provided subscribers with on-demand videos of 16 previously recorded ballets. HB at Home, a social-media series of videos, welcomed viewers daily to its new dancer-generated content. In addition, the well-established Dance Talks lecture series reached new audiences through online Zoom conversations entitled “After the Curtain Falls” and “The Dancer Perspective.”
“We are not finished creating,” says Welch. “We’ve demonstrated that time and time again. While the future is uncertain, this is not. We can and will bring high-quality art to this city through dance, whether you see it in a theater or on your living-room couch.”
Houston Ballet managed to pay its dancers and staff through the end of the 2019–2020 season in June, but it has since laid off 30 percent of the staff, and the rest, including Welch, have taken pay cuts. The dancers and orchestra musicians are now on summer hiatus, but Welch isn’t sure when they will be able to bring them back.
Besides canceling performances, the company also lost a three-week tour of Spain. In light of the lost revenue, Houston Ballet has started a pandemic fundraising campaign with a goal of $5 million—about 50 percent of which has already been raised.
“People around the world are donating,” says Welch.
The company, which employs 61 dancers, has one of the largest endowments of any American dance company, at just over $79 million.
“We will rely on that more than normal,” Welch says. “But this is a war, not a battle, and we have to make sure we are protected in the future.”
But all is not lost for the holidays. Welch is creating a “Christmas spectacular” program that is sure to please audiences in December.
“It may not be The Nutcracker,” he says, “and it may be online. I’m choreographing Christmas carols right now.”
To donate to the Houston Ballet’s pandemic relief fund, go here.