Postgraduate student An Phan (right) and 2020 graduate Emma Skrzypczak (left) perform in the 2019 production of The Nutcracker.
Postgraduate student An Phan rehearses a scene in the Shed.
Sophomore Ava Blain practices a section of Clara’s new en pointe choreography.
Blain (left) and George Loheac (right) rehearse a tender moment between Clara and the Nutcracker.
With the COVID-19 pandemic intensifying, the 2020 holiday season is unlike any other in modern history. Many gatherings with family and friends won’t take place, and performing arts venues across the country remain shuttered. After over nine months, pandemic fatigue is palpable.
Still, people are finding ways to connect and celebrate, including the students of Interlochen Arts Academy. On Dec. 12 and 15, respectively, Academy students will sustain and reinvigorate two popular Interlochen holiday traditions, The Nutcracker and Sounds of the Season.
Although these familiar events will look a little different this year, tenacity, resilience, and gratitude energize them like never before.
In accordance with Interlochen’s COVID-19 health-and-safety measures, both performances will be streamed rather than shared with the public in person, and students will perform in face coverings, with six feet between them.
”Although the experience of performing is different this year, being back on stage is something I am incredibly grateful for,” says Ava Blain, a 14-year-old sophomore from Traverse City, Michigan, who will fulfill her childhood dream of performing the role of Clara in the Academy’s production of The Nutcracker.
Students and faculty involved in both performances echo Blain’s gratitude not only to be able to share their work during this uncertain time, but to bring much-needed holiday cheer to audiences far and wide.
Sending a holiday postcard
Last December, the Academy’s Sounds of the Season sold out for the sixth consecutive year. Traditionally, the popular concert draws friends of Interlochen from across the Grand Traverse region and features classic holiday songs performed by the Arts Academy Wind Symphony and Choir, with many opportunities for the audience to sing along. This year, with the Academy’s large ensembles reconfigured to accommodate mandatory social distancing, Sounds of the Season will adopt a new format.
The reimagined performance will operate almost as a holiday edition of “Collage,” the Academy’s fall showcase of student artwork and performances, with seasonal solo and small ensemble presentations by students from most of the Academy’s artistic disciplines: music, theatre, dance, creative writing, visual arts, and interdisciplinary arts.
Senior creative writing major Maia Siegel will share an original poem. Siegel is the 2019-20 Virginia B. Ball Creative Writing Scholar, and she was recently named a top poet of this year’s Foyle Young Poets of the Year Award, the biggest poetry competition in the world for 11 to 17-year-olds.
“I'm excited to share a little of my Hanukkah experiences with everyone,” Siegel says. “Growing up in the South, my family was the only Jewish family in my neighborhood. This could feel like we were the only dark house on the block, but I learned to appreciate both the mesmerizing candles in the menorah shining through our window, as well as the multicolored lights I could walk around my block and see.”
Theo Gyra, a theatre major, will recite the holiday classic, “Twas the Night Before Christmas.” “At a time when so few performances are taking place, we are compelled to reflect on what is truly essential to us, and I feel extremely fortunate that I can still engage with art,” he says. “Hopefully this reading offers others a bit of an escape from the anxieties of the day.”
For theatre major Caroline Bowers, Sounds of the Season also offers an opportunity for reflection on the fall semester. “It means a lot to me to be a part of this community and family, and Sounds of the Season is a reminder to look back on how far we've come this semester, and to enjoy every minute of it."
Like “Collage” this fall, Sounds of the Season will feature pre-recorded segments integrated into a cohesive performance that Jason Hubbard, vice provost of academic and arts education, describes as a “lighthearted holiday postcard.”
Reimagining The Nutcracker
Like Sounds of the Season, The Nutcracker will prioritize safety while maintaining the essence of a cherished holiday tradition.
Director of Dance Joseph Morrissey re-choreographed Interlochen’s production to reduce the number of performers on stage and expand the distance between dancers. Even still, he is adamant that the result is not “a Covid Nutcracker.”
“We are all embracing this year’s safety restrictions as an opportunity to make magic happen in new ways,” Morrissey says. “The quality of dancing is at its highest ever.”
Creative props, such as lengths of silk, will enable aspects of partnering while maintaining social distance. The production also features new state-of-the-art digital projections and more than 100 exquisitely detailed costumes, some of which were newly hand-crafted for Interlochen dancers in Kyiv, Ukraine.
Morrissey has re-envisioned the role of Clara as a young adult, whose relationship with her nutcracker-doll-turned-handsome-prince takes on a more romantic tone. Prince Coqueluche, a character who appeared in the original 1892 production, returns as the Sugar Plum Fairy’s partner.
“The role of Clara has more technically difficult choreography than in past productions at Interlochen, which I have loved learning and rehearsing,” says Blain.
George Loheac, who plays opposite Blain as the Nutcracker, considers the expanded role of Clara one of the finest aspects of the production. “My favorite part is the beautiful adagio with the Nutcracker Prince and Clara,” Loheac says. “In our new version, Clara gets to dance with the Nutcracker Prince before he takes her to the Enchanted Snow Forest. This shows more relationship between the two and also shows off Clara’s amazing pointe work!”
The expanded romantic roles give Morrissey and the dancers an additional challenge: portraying connection while maintaining a safe social distance.
“One of the biggest challenges for me is trying to show Clara’s affection for the Nutcracker without being close to him,” Blain says. “The new socially distant pas de deux between Clara and the Nutcracker has been my favorite part to learn and rehearse.”
Loheac agrees, and views the new choreography as an opportunity for artistry. “I have to almost exaggerate connection and expression through dancing to compensate for the scenes where we are not able to touch one another,” he says. “But we are artists, so even through these challenges, it’s really our job to find another way to tell the story.”
Bringing holiday cheer far and wide
Despite the loss of in-person performances, Sounds of the Season and The Nutcracker will reach larger audiences than ever before. Both performances will be streamed at live.interlochen.org and on Interlochen’s Facebook page. The Nutcracker will be streamed on Saturday, Dec. 12, at 7:30 p.m. ET and Sounds of the Season will be streamed on Tuesday, Dec. 15, at 7:30 p.m. ET.
Viewers will also be able to watch Interlochen’s Dec. 12 stream of The Nutcracker via Roku and iOS and Android devices via northern Michigan’s 9&10 News on VUit, an app hosting hundreds of news stations across the country. And in a special partnership, Detroit Public Television, Michigan’s largest public television station, will stream the production at dptv.org and wrcj.org. On Friday, Dec. 25, at 8 p.m., Detroit Public TV will broadcast the performance to its two million viewers and then make it available on demand at dptv.org. (Viewers outside of the station's viewing area will be able to watch the performance on demand at dptv.org, on the PBS Video app, or on YouTube.)
“Our partnerships with Detroit Public TV and 9&10 News are wonderful opportunities to showcase our program, artistic talent, and the magnitude of what we produce here at Interlochen,” Morrissey says. “It’s also a great chance to introduce families and children to the art of ballet.”
“Most of all, I hope audiences can take their minds off the current global situation and allow themselves to be transported to an enchanting and familiar story told through beautiful music and dance.”