CHICAGO — In the world of amateur ballet, each year has a familiar rhythm. Ballet academies hold auditions for “The Nutcracker” in the fall, and as winter approaches the young dancers learn how to be toy soldiers, or angels, or mice. Shortly before Christmas, when the ballet takes place, it’s time to perform.
This year, with the pandemic raging, many ballet schools dropped the tradition altogether. But an academy in downtown Chicago, owned by a pair of Russian ballet instructors who ran the Joffrey Academy of Dance for years, decided that they would figure out a way to mount a “Nutcracker” — no matter how complicated it got.
Wearing masks on their faces and numbers pinned to their leotards, young ballerinas auditioned in September at the academy, A & A Ballet. Alexei Kremnev and Anna Reznik, the school’s owners, set about creating a “Nutcracker” for a socially distant age: They shrank the cast, cut out the partnering, shortened the production to eliminate intermission and vowed to sell only about 7 percent of the theater’s seats. They persevered even when one young dancer had a confirmed case of Covid-19 and two others had symptoms, moving rehearsals to Zoom for a time.
Then, about two weeks before the reduced hoards of parents and grandparents were set to arrive for the scheduled performances, a surge of Covid cases led the state to order all theaters to close again.
Undeterred, Mr. Kremnev and Ms. Reznik came up with a simple solution: Why not move “Nutcracker” to May, when they hope there will be fewer restrictions?
The idea of moving the most Christmassy of ballets to springtime may seem jarring. “The Nutcracker” is set on Christmas Eve, and typically features a towering Christmas tree and dancing snowflakes, making it an annual holiday tradition around the world. But Mr. Kremnev and Ms. Reznik don’t see why it has to be that way. After all, Handel’s “Messiah,” the ultimate Christmas oratorio, was originally considered Easter music.
And ballet companies have not always confined their “Nutcracker” performances to Christmastime, particularly in the Soviet Union and Russia, where the ballet, with its glorious Tchaikovsky score, had its premiere in St. Petersburg in 1892. While that very first performance was held in December, when a new “Nutcracker” production was mounted in 1934 in what was then Leningrad, the premiere was in February. And in 1966, the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow unveiled a new production in March.
“For them, it was just another ballet — and not the most successful ballet,” said Jennifer Fisher, a dance historian and author of “Nutcracker Nation.” “Once it gets planted here in San Francisco in 1944 and in New York in 1954, it becomes an annual production, always at Christmas.”
Even in the United States, it has not always been confined to wintertime: In 1977, Mikhail Baryshnikov’s “Nutcracker” for American Ballet Theater was performed in New York in May, after a more traditional December world premiere in Washington.
Mr. Kremnev and Ms. Reznik said that when they lived in Russia, it was common to perform “Nutcracker” throughout the season, typically from September through May, so this year’s postponement does not feel strange to them.
“It was repertoire just like ‘Spartacus’ or ‘Swan Lake’ or ‘Sleeping Beauty,’” Mr. Kremnev said.
So come May, as the temperature climbs and, with luck, the virus recedes, the dancers of A & A Ballet hope to break out their furry mouse suits, their tricorn soldier’s hats and the comically huge Mother Ginger skirt — assuming that Chicago’s theaters are allowed to open once again.
For Mr. Kremnev, 50, and Ms. Reznik, 52, who are married, reopening their studio over the summer was a challenge in itself; it was often difficult to determine where lessons and rehearsals fit in the state’s phased reopening plan. (Is a ballet academy more like a fitness class, or a camp?) But they held an intensive at their studio in July, and a city inspector visited to make sure the program aligned with state guidelines.
When it came time for their “Art Deco Nutcracker,” which is set in 1920s America, the couple was intent on making the show work within rules designed to stop the spread. In September, no more than 10 performers could rehearse at a time. They planned on a cast of roughly 75 dancers, half the usual size. And they would fill only about 7 percent of the Studebaker Theater’s 725 seats, so it would be far from a financial success.
Then there were the changes to the ballet itself. Mr. Kremnev — who choreographed “The Art Deco Nutcracker” in 2017 — removed all partnering and close contact among the young dancers. The Sugarplum Fairy could no longer dance a pas de deux with her Cavalier, and the trio of Russian dancers who perform in the second act could no longer clasp each other’s arms.
In rehearsals, the ballet instructors were no longer able to manipulate dancers’ bodies into the correct positions.
“Usually they are very hands on,” said Grace Curry, a 17-year-old dancer who plays both Clara and the Sugarplum Fairy in different casts. “They move your leg where they want it, they put your foot in the right position. But this year, they couldn’t do that.”
The dancers, who range from ages 4 to 24, were disappointed about the abrupt cancellation of the show, but Mr. Kremnev and Ms. Reznik were relatively unfazed.
Their production of “Nutcracker,” they said, isn’t really about the performances or the ticket revenue. It’s about getting the students in the studio to train, to learn the choreography, to learn to perform in sync with the others.
“It really doesn’t matter if we’re going to perform it,” Ms. Reznik said. “I always tell my students, everything we do in the studio, you can use for your future.”
But, they will assure the dancers and their families, they have every intention to make “Nutcracker” a Christmas tradition — in 2021.