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'It's Just The Oddest Of Holiday Seasons': Ballet Austin Offers A Digital 'Nutcracker' For 2020

Dancers in the 2013 Ballet Austin performance of 'The Nutcracker '
Tony Spielberg
Ballet Austin
The 2013 Ballet Austin performance of 'The Nutcracker '

“You know, I was thinking about The Nutcracker,” says Ballet Austin artistic director Stephen Mills. “The first Nutcracker I ever performed in, I was 18 years old. And I have not missed one of these seasons ever, since I was 18 years old. And so it’s just the oddest of holiday seasons not to be, right now, at the theater preparing for the opening. The new normal is just very odd.”

If Mills is still trying to wrap his mind around a holiday season that doesn’t include a live performance of The Nutcracker, he’s not alone. Tchaikovsky’s ballet is a huge part of the holiday season for dancers and audiences alike, but the pandemic has made it impossible for the show to go on this year. So for the first time in more than half a century, Ballet Austin is not performing The Nutcracker.

In a bit of serendipity, though, last year’s Nutcracker was captured on digital media. “Which is really interesting,” Mills says. “We don’t really record every production of The Nutcracker. But for some reason, someone in their infinite wisdom decided to do a three-camera digital shoot last December. So we were sitting here with all this footage – beautiful footage, up close footage – so we’re really lucky in that respect.”

Since Ballet Austin is in need of funds after being dark for most of the year and their audience wants a Nutcracker fix this Christmas, it only makes sense to share last year’s performance with patrons who donate to the company this holiday season. “You know, we’re in a relief campaign, so our goal is to raise money to keep people employed. And so… with a philanthropic gift, you will receive in the email a ‘golden key’ which will allow access to particular elements of this.”

Ballet donors will get access to the digital film version of last year’s Nutcracker, with bonus material like interviews and behind-the-scene footage (and even recipes from company members!) becoming available with higher donations.

For Mills and the Ballet Austin team, it was important to find some way to share The Nutcracker this year, pandemic or not. “The thing about The Nutcracker is that it is so ingrained in people’s holiday tradition. Which we’re grateful for, that people use dance as a way to bring their families together. That’s really a gratifying thing for us as an art form,” Mills says. “And this year was to be our 58th season of producing The Nutcracker with no breaks – 58 years straight. And the idea that we would not be in people’s holiday experience in some way or another was something we weren’t willing to do.”

Making this digital filmed version of The Nutcracker available is the best option possible for 2020, but Mills is more than ready to invite live audiences back to the ballet when it’s safe to do so. “We are determined to make the most of this and be as positive as we possibly can,” he says. “We want to make sure that we stay present… in our Ballet Austin family’s lives so that when we get out to the other side, they’ll be ready to see us again [and] we’ll be ready to welcome them back to the Long Center and resume where we left off last March. Can you believe it’s been almost a year?”

In a year like this, the comfort of tradition might be more important than ever. “The difficulty in this pandemic has been the isolation that some people have felt,” Mills says. “You know, I’ve got a partner and I’ve got a puppy, and so that has kept me busy. But not everybody has that. And so if this can bring some sort of normalcy into a home that is feeling a little lonely right now, or isolated, that’s a good thing as well.”

Patrons can donate to Ballet Austin by December 20 to gain access to the digital film version of 'The Nutcracker.'

Mike is the production director at KUT, where he’s been working since his days as an English major at the University of Texas. He produces Arts Eclectic, Get Involved, and the Sonic ID project, and also produces videos and cartoons for When pressed to do so, he’ll write short paragraphs about himself in the third person, but usually prefers not to.
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