Resuming a holiday tradition: Shut down last year, Pioneer Valley Ballet’s ‘Nutcracker’ returns to the stage

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  • Matthew Zellmer-Brown, right, of Leeds, in his role as the “Nutcracker”, battles Alex Wilga, second from left, of Hadley, as the “Rat King” during a rehearsal on Friday, Dec. 3, 2021, in Easthampton for the Pioneer Valley Ballet production of “The Nutcracker” to be performed at the Academy of Music Theatre in Northampton this Friday through Sunday. Wilga is joined by “Rats” Anna Mansfield, left, and Vanessa Reece, both of Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/KEVN GUTTING

  • Sophie Calkins, left, of Florence, in her role as “Clara”, protects the Nutcracker from several “Rats” including Anna Mansfield, center, of Northampton and Rachael Strycharz, right, of Sunderland during a rehearsal on Friday, Dec. 3, 2021, in Easthampton for the Pioneer Valley Ballet production of “The Nutcracker” to be performed at the Academy of Music Theatre in Northampton this Friday through Sunday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVN GUTTING

  • Pioneer Valley Ballet cast members, from left, Vanessa Reece, Anna Mansfield and Ellie Chambers, all of Northampton, Rachael Strycharz of Sunderland and Catherine Peters of Northampton rehearse on Friday, Dec. 3, 2021, in Easthampton for their roles as “Rats” in the PVB production of “The Nutcracker” to be performed at the Academy of Music Theatre in Northampton this Friday through Sunday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVN GUTTING

  • Pioneer Valley Ballet cast members Denal Bench, left, Desmond Campbell and Silas Kleppinger, rehearse on Friday, Dec. 3, 2021, in Easthampton for their roles as “Soldiers,” battling the “Rats” in background, in the PVB production of “The Nutcracker” to be performed at the Academy of Music Theatre in Northampton this Friday through Sunday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVN GUTTING

  • Pioneer Valley Ballet cast members, from left, Ellie Chambers of Northampton, Rachael Strycharz of Sunderland and Anna Mansfield and Vanessa Reece of Northampton, rehearse on Friday, Dec. 3, 2021, in Easthampton for their roles as “Rats” in the PVB production of “The Nutcracker” to be performed at the Academy of Music Theatre in Northampton this Friday through Sunday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVN GUTTING

  • Alex Wilga, left, of Hadley, as the “Rat King”, battles Matthew Zellmer-Brown, center, of Leeds, as the “Nutcracker”, during a rehearsal on Friday, Dec. 3, 2021, in Easthampton for the Pioneer Valley Ballet production of “The Nutcracker” to be performed at the Academy of Music Theatre in Northampton this Friday through Sunday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVN GUTTING

  • The Nutcracker stands ready during a rehearsal on Friday, Dec. 3, 2021, in Easthampton for the Pioneer Valley Ballet production of “The Nutcracker” to be performed at the Academy of Music Theatre in Northampton this Friday through Sunday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVN GUTTING

  • Matthew Zellmer-Brown, center, of Leeds, in his role as the “Nutcracker”, battles Alex Wilga of Hadley, as the “Rat King” during a rehearsal on Friday, Dec. 3, 2021, in Easthampton for the Pioneer Valley Ballet production of “The Nutcracker” to be performed at the Academy of Music Theatre in Northampton this Friday through Sunday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVN GUTTING

  • Pioneer Valley Ballet faculty member Barbie Diewald, right, works with Sophie Calkins of Florence in her role as “Clara” during a rehearsal on Friday, Dec. 3, 2021, in Easthampton for the PVB production of “The Nutcracker” to be performed at the Academy of Music Theatre in Northampton this Friday through Sunday. The recently slain “Rat King”, played by Alex Wilga of Hadley, lies on the floor. STAFF PHOTO/KEVN GUTTING

  • A pivotal moment in The Nutcracker, when Clara, at center, sees her toy nutcracker transformed into a prince. IMAGE COURTESY OF PIONEER VALLEY BALLET

  • This year’s Nutcracker by Pioneer Valley Ballet has been trimmed down in size and length to adjust for COVID-19. Last year there was no show at all because of the pandemic. IMAGE COURTESY OF PIONEER VALLEY BALLET

  • A favorite scene from The Nutcracker — when the polichinelle, or little clowns, run out from beneath Mother Ginger’s enormous skirt. IMAGE COURTESY OF PIONEER VALLEY BALLET

Staff Writer
Published: 12/6/2021 2:02:57 PM
Modified: 12/6/2021 2:02:29 PM

NORTHAMPTON — December in the Valley is marked by any number of longstanding traditions: visits from Santa Claus, Hanukkah celebrations, downtown holiday lighting in many communities — and the staging of “The Nutcracker” at Northampton’s Academy of Music.

Except last year, after more than 40 consecutive years of Nutcracker productions, all staged by Pioneer Valley Ballet, the show was shut down by a certain highly contagious virus.

But this weekend, PVB’s Nutcracker returns to the Academy: a bit shorter, a bit smaller, and with some other changes made to minimize any threat from COVID-19. Yet it’s still a familiar production and a celebration of community, says Thomas Vacanti, co-director of PVB.

The ballet takes place Friday through Saturday, Dec. 10-12, at 7 p.m. on Friday; 1 and 4 p.m. on Saturday; and 1 p.m. on Sunday. (Another winter performance, by the Massachusetts Academy of Ballet in Holyoke, takes place Dec. 18: see related story.)

“It’s pretty exciting to be back,” said Vacanti. “This is basically a distilled and modified version of the ballet, but the story is still the same and the spirit is very much there.

“We’re keeping it at just under an hour, with no intermission, which actually should be a good way of keeping the younger audience members engaged,” he added.

And, Vacanti notes, this year’s Nutcracker is also a morale booster for PVB dancers, who during the pandemic lost the chance to perform a number of shows and, like so many dancers, had to adapt to taking lessons on Zoom for several months.

Then, when limited in-person classes resumed in fall 2020, everyone had to wear face masks, and dancers were confined to “12 by 12-foot boxes,” as Vacanti puts it, in the PVB studios to observe social distancing.

As he said earlier this year, “It’s been hard for students not to have that theatrical element — live performance — to look forward to.”

Some PVB dancers did perform outdoors this summer, at Park Hill Orchard in Easthampton, in a mini-ballet based on Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Meantime, indoor rehearsals for The Nutcracker, which began this summer — about two months earlier than usual — became more flexible as the older teen dancers were vaccinated.

Everyone, though, has remained masked, and masks will also be worn at the Academy shows. Vacanti notes as well that in planning for the return of the Nutcracker, he and fellow co-director Maryanne Kodzis “realized we couldn’t just go into the studio and rely on the dancers remembering, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s how we did that scene before.’ We knew this show would have to be different.”

Specifically, he and Kodzis wanted to scale down the production to have fewer people both onstage and backstage so as to observe some social distancing. The choreography would have to be reshaped to keep dancers further apart and give them space to move freely, and the show would be shortened while maintaining the essence of important scenes.

“This is The Nutcracker,” Vacanti said. “You still have to have the growing Christmas Tree, the battle between the giant mice and the gingerbread soldiers, the Sugar Plum Fairy.”

The famous ballet, performed to the music of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, tells the story of a young girl, Clara, who at midnight on Christmas Eve is transported to a magical world when a toy nutcracker she’s received as a gift is transformed into a prince. The prince takes Clara to the Land of Sweets, where they meet the Sugar Plum Fairy, her cavalier and a host of dancers representing sweets from many countries.

According to Vacanti and Kodzis, past Nutcrackers have typically involved some 250 teenage and younger dancers from towns throughout western Massachusetts, plus adult guest dancers and actors.

When support crew such as stagehands, lighting designers, costume makers, and volunteers are factored in, as many as 300 people have been involved in producing the four weekend shows at the Academy, with perhaps 100 involved onstage and off for each individual performance.

Those numbers were not possible this year. Vacanti says 75 dancers are involved, with fewer child performers in particular. Some roles, like that of Mother Ginger, which has typically been filled by community members, are also being handled in-house this time, though some other adults from the community remain part of the show in non-dancing roles.

“The basic structure is the same,” Vacanti said. “Instead of 15 reindeer, we’ll have four … some scenes will be shortened, but they’re still there.

“We wanted to make sure we could do this in the safest way possible for everybody — our cast, our crew members, the audience,” he added.

In the end, Vacanti noted, PVB’s presentation of The Nutcracker has always been about community, with many people and organizations contributing to the show — and just being back in the Academy of Music, in front of a live audience, he said, “is really a blessing for us.”

To purchase advance tickets for the show, and to read about the safety protocols required for attending, visit aomtheatre.com.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

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