By Pam Hersh
The Nutcracker, the thrilling ballet set to Tchaikovsky’s magnificent score, has been a joyful element of my Christmas season for nearly every Christmas since 1964, when the American Repertory Ballet (ARB), formerly Princeton Ballet, made the ballet an annual holiday tradition. I have seen the production an estimated 150 times at McCarter Theatre in Princeton, State Theater in New Brunswick, and the War Memorial in Trenton – not only because it gives me goosebumps, but also (full disclosure number one) because my daughter and my granddaughter have danced in dozens of productions.
This year, COVID-19 positioned itself to be the Grinch that would steal the 2020 holiday sweet treat from not only my family, but also countless other families throughout New Jersey. But ARB and the students of its affiliated Princeton Ballet School (PBS) teamed up with Main Street Highland Park (MSHP) in a perfect pas de deux to thwart the Grinch. On Saturday afternoon, Nov. 21, ARB, PBS and MSHP produced Princeton Ballet School’s Nutcracker Suite – outside, with masks, with technical dance excellence, and with unbridled joy, in front of audience members, sitting socially distant, with masks and without paying a penny for a truly inspiring show. The teamwork resulted in the ballet’s first live dance performance since February, while simultaneously raising the profile of the COVID-beleaguered downtown Highland Park retail community.
Full disclosure number two – my daughter Rebecca Hersh heads MSHP and my granddaughter Lily Solomon was one of the students performing as one of the “candy canes from Russia.” So yes, the goosebumps I felt were not only the usual ones I experience every time I hear the score and watch the exquisite dancing, but also the ones unique to this particular production.
The ballet company and school led by ARB Executive Director Julie Diana Hench, (Artistic Director Designate Ethan Stiefel starts in July 2021), and PBS Director Aydmara Cabrera worked with the Main Street Highland Park team, led by MSHP Executive Director Rebecca Hersh, Assistant Director Javier Zavaleta, and Board Member Jenni Chapman, to fulfill the mandate of “the show must go on.” Their passion and determination fueled the event, respectful of but not cowed by the COVID threat.
While the dance team prepared the dancers for the challenges of performing outdoors on a small, temporary stage, while staying safe from the usual dangers of dance related injuries and the unusual dangers of COVID, the Main Street group put in many hours of logistical planning geared to keep COVID out and enjoyment in, enforcing strict registration, supporting the local retailers by giving out to all audience members goodie bags with coupons to various retail establishments, and securing sponsors to finance the project. The sponsors crucial to the event were Middlesex County Board of Chosen Freeholders, the New Jersey State Arts Council, and Miller’s Rentals. And just because I want credit for some aspect of this awesome project, I am proclaiming that I arranged for the weather – overcast, no wind, no rain, and moderate mid-50s to 60-degree temperatures.
For one hour, the audience members and performers escaped from reality and worries about the depressed and depressing retail scene in downtowns throughout New Jersey, the struggling arts scene through out New Jersey, and the excruciating struggles of New Jerseyans confronting the horrors of this disease. On the day of the performance, New Jersey reported close to 5,000 new cases, surpassing 300,000 total cases since the pandemic began. The statewide cumulative total was 302,039 positive test results. New Jersey’s overall fatality count resulting from COVID-19 went up to 16,746.
The dancing of the candy canes, snowflakes, sugar plums, dew drop, chocolates, marzipans, polichinelles, coffees, teas, Mother Ginger cherubs, and waltzing flowers, comprised the ingredients of a delicious cake whose icing was a performance by two ARB professionals in the role of the Sugar Plum and Cavalier. For the first time in months, the little tears in the corners of my eyes were dewdrops of joy rather than stinging tears of fear and frustration.
My only advice as to how to sustain the spirit of this initiative is to pay it forward – shop local, attend all the virtual fundraisers for the arts and social services organizations, and say thank you a billion times to all frontline healthcare personnel and essential workers whose services sustain our day to day survival. Perhaps, we should buy these essential workers coupons for goods and services at local restaurants and retail shops, as well as tickets to next year’s arts productions – post COVID and post vaccination.
Until then, maybe a few more communities through December could use this model of arts and business collaboration to create a movement away from the computer screens and into the streets for small, niche, COVID-safe, outdoor, performing arts productions covering the entire gamut of dance and musical entertainment. Right now, I crave not only all styles of dance, but also jazz, rock and roll, and even a good stand-up comic. New Jersey’s winter weather generally doesn’t get too apocalyptic until February and March. How sweet that would be if the hard work, creativity and determination were catching instead of the virus!