The Columbia City Ballet is celebrating its 60-year anniversary with eight performances of the Nutcracker in December.
The Nutcracker is a symbol of holiday spirit and celebration of the arts that is especially important during the pandemic.
“I think if people come to the Nutcracker, they'll be able to sort of maybe see their own lives through fresh eyes, too, through almost that magical lens that it gives you,” said Bonnie Boiter-Jolley, a USC alum and Columbia City Ballet dancer.
Columbia City Ballet’s long-time executive and artistic director William Starrett preserves the traditional magic of the Nutcracker as many directors do, but he varies some elements year to year to make the show more exciting for the audience and dancers.
The unique changes 2020 has brought are being reflected in this year’s production, which will take place at the Koger Center.
”This year, I set the Nutcracker in the 1920s during the Spanish flu, and so all the costumes are in the Roaring Twenties,” Starrett said.
The portrayal of a different era's pandemic also gives context to the masks dancers will be wearing. According to Amanda Hwang, a Columbia City Ballet dancer and Nutcracker cast member, all the dancers will have different masks to match their costumes.
Safety is the Columbia City Ballet’s priority during the COVID-19 pandemic.
”Every dancer is tested every week,” Starrett said. “We have to train six feet apart. We're wearing masks all day.”
The pandemic canceled the Columbia City Ballet’s last 11 performances, so the Nutcracker at the Koger Center is its grand return.The number of performances was increased from the usual six to eight in order to accommodate limited venue seating.
As the largest performing arts organization in South Carolina and largest employer of artists, the Columbia City Ballet has felt the void COVID-19 has caused in the arts industry.
The company’s ballet dancers began to prepare for their demanding roles when studios were closed.
“We’ve mostly been working from our homes, like holding onto a chair, the bar, and doing classes over Zoom. So, it's hard, but I'm really glad we have the opportunity to perform again,” Hwang said.
Despite the setbacks of the pandemic, Boiter-Jolley, who will be playing the Sugar Plum Fairy and Louise in the Nutcracker, said she has been able to see the “silver linings” of the performance hiatus.
“Going back into it, it's really been nice because we've all been really extra thankful and extra grateful for the ability to be at a dance studio and to be able to dance together with, like I said, the precautions that we have been taking, and that we have an organization that does support that,” Boiter-Jolley said.
Artists all over the country have struggled to maintain a living and livelihood since performances were brought to a halt. Boiter-Jolley said dancers also lost the "framework" of being able to train together.
Starrett said performing is a “big teaching opportunity” in arts appreciation.
“In larger, bigger cities they already have a big appreciation for arts and the performing arts, where here it's more about — it's very sports-centric,” Starrett said. “And so I just feel it's an important calling to bring the arts and high art to the Deep South.”
Boiter-Jolley also advocates for the arts’ importance in Columbia.
"What we leave behind is not just about what we buy and who we support in sports and politics, but also about what we do as far as our artistic contributions," Boiter-Jolley said.
Those looking to experience Christmas magic live can attend the Nutcracker at the Koger Center for the Arts from Dec. 12 to Dec. 13 and Dec. 19 to Dec. 20. Tickets can be purchased on the Koger Center’s website, by calling the center or by visiting the box office.
Correction (Dec. 9, 2020, at 9:09 p.m.): A previous version of this article stated Claire Richards Rapp portrayed Clara in the photo. Clara is portrayed by Ava Ramirez in the photo.